New research has found that the coronavirus can damage cells in the pancreas that are responsible for creating insulin, which may explain why some individuals have been diagnosed with diabetes after being infected with COVID-19.

The number of people developing diabetes after being infected with the virus has significantly grown in recent months, healthcare professionals say.

Several explanations for this surge have been put forward, including that the disease spreads into pancreatic cells through the ACE2 receptor located on the outer layer of lung cells, and that vigorous antibodies reacting to the infection could unintentionally harm the pancreatic cells.

Tissues becoming less reactive to insulin due to inflammation in the body is also thought to be a possible cause.

A team of international academics identified what organisms can be infected with COVID-19 by testing a range of cells and organoids, which are a man-made group of cells that copy organ functions.

They found that colon, liver, heart, lung and pancreatic organoids and brain cells that make dopamine were all easily infectible.

Additionally, they reported that beta cells within the pancreas that create insulin were damaged after being infected, causing them to produce a lower dose of the hormone.

Chief author Professor Shuibing Chen said: “We call this transdifferentiation.

“They are basically changing their cellular fate, so instead of being hardcore beta cells which secrete a lot of insulin, they start to mix different hormones. It could provide further insight into the pathological mechanisms of COVID-19.”

However, researchers have revealed that this cell damage might only be a temporary condition.

Professor Chen added: “We know that some patients who had very unstable blood glucose levels when they were in the intensive care unit and recovered from Covid-19, some of them also recovered [glucose control], suggesting that not all patients will be permanent.”

A previous study conducted by researchers from the University of Siena in Italy found that the coronavirus damages cells in the pancreas by attacking the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) protein located on the surface, with insulin-producing beta cells presenting lots of proteins.

Additionally, they discovered that ACE2 levels were raised when located in inflamed areas, meaning those with diabetes are more likely to develop pancreatic dysfunction after being infection with COVID-19.

Researcher Professor Francesco Dotta said: “People with diabetes in general are not more susceptible to Covid-19 infection in terms of frequency, but once they are infected they develop more severe complications and severe metabolic derangement.”

Dr Lucy Chambers, head of research communications at Diabetes UK, said: “People with diabetes have been disproportionality affected by COVID-19, and many people with the condition have tragically died as a result.

“This research deepens our understanding of how diabetes and COVID-19 may interact biologically. This will help in the development of new, effective ways to treat people at risk of – or living with – diabetes who have Covid-19.”

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