Reversing Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the pancreas does not produce enough of the hormone insulin to meet the needs of the body. Unlike type 2 diabetes, which develops when the body doesn’t respond to insulin properly as a result of excess abdominal fat, type 1 diabetes is an inherited autoimmune disease, in which the immune system treats the pancreas as a foreign body and attacks it.

As with most autoimmune diseases, type 1 diabetes has been on the rise in recent decades. It is normally diagnosed in children, and is a life-long condition. Symptoms include frequent urination and thirst, weight loss, extreme hunger, and fatigue. Type 1 diabetes used to be known as insulin-dependent diabetes, because patients had to carefully measure insulin levels, and inject themselves periodically. Modern medical technology has made it possible for people to use automatic insulin pumps to monitor their insulin levels and administer appropriate doses when it is necessary to do so.

Now a newer treatment may become available that could the condition entirely. Experiments with laboratory animals have found a way to protect the cells that produce insulin from the overactive immune system. The immune system doesn’t attack the protected cells, and so they are able to produce the needed insulin. The procedure has not yet been tried in humans, but the receptor involved works in similar ways in humans and mice, and so the researchers think the treatment might work in humans as well. They say it only works in the early stages of the disease, however.

Another suggested treatment involves using immune-suppressing drugs to stop the immune system from attacking the pancreas. After that, the immune system itself is rebooted, with new cells that are less hostile to the pancreas. The doctor who devised this approach is hoping that by rebooting the immune system the pancreatic cells can be kept safe. This treatment has been tested, in adults, and has proven successful for those patients. This is the first study to find a treatment that is effective even in patients who have had the disease for a long time. Ordinarily, the later type 1 diabetes is caught, the less well it responds to treatment.

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