Your body digests and breaks down the food you eat into glucose. Then your insulin hormone converts this simple sugar into energy to power your cells — unless you have Type 1 diabetes, which begins during childhood or young adulthood usually. This metabolic disease causes your immune system to target your insulin-producing beta cells incorrectly for destruction. Unfortunately, your autoimmune response destroys these vital cells continuously for the rest of your life. Your pancreas loses its ability to produce insulin that’s necessary for natural functioning.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have been trying to help Type 1 diabetics restore their defective insulin production. The goal is to create a source of insulin-producing cells for transplantation or to convert the body’s existing cells to make sufficient insulin amounts, according to Dr. Derek LeRoith, professor of medicine and diabetes at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Two innovative research groups have made tremendous progress recently.
Understanding this Lifelong Condition and Treatment
When your body quits producing and releasing insulin, you need to replace it with multiple daily injections via syringes or pens. Then this hormone will resume its essential functions, which include regulating how your body uses and stores glucose and fat. Insulin helps control your blood sugar levels by signaling your liver as well as muscle and fat cells to take in glucose from your blood and use it for energy. If your body has sufficient energy, insulin signals your liver to take up glucose and store it as glycogen. Your liver can stock up to 5 percent of its mass as glycogen.
Work closely with your health care team to determine which insulin(s) are best for you and your body. You may need to monitor your blood glucose levels multiple times daily. With proper insulin therapy, even young children can learn to manage their blood sugar levels and live long, healthy lives. Order insulin syringes and pen needles online so you always have a supply on hand.
Repurposed Cells Become Glucose Responsive
Previous research created insulin-producing cells using stem cells, but they didn’t function fully like natural ones. So Columbia University Medical Centerscientists pursued a different method. By turning off the FOXO1 gene, they were able to convert cells in the human gut into ones that make insulin. Their findings show that reeducating existing cells may be an easier and better way to replace lost cells than creating new one through stem cell technology.
“People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now, we hadn’t gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target,” said senior researcher Dr. Domenico Accili, a Columbia professor of medicine.
In prior research, his team turned intestinal cells into insulin-producing ones in mice. The transformed gastrointestinal cells made insulin that entered the bloodstream, controlling blood sugar levels in diabetic mice. Another team of scientists confirmed that research subsequently. The Columbia team’s latest research shows that this technique also holds promise for Type 1 diabetes treatment in human cells.
For the new study, the researchers recreated a tissue model of the human intestine using stem cells. Deactivating the FOXO1 gene retrained gut cells to make insulin and become glucose responsive. The genetically engineered cells began emitting insulin in about a week. Unlike converted stem cells that released insulin constantly, retrained cells released insulin only in response to sugar — just like natural pancreatic cells.
Changing the function of existing cells to restore normal insulin production puts us one step closer to a new treatment for Type 1 diabetes without involving less effective stem cells. Dr. LeRoith, who wasn’t involved in the new research, noted that scientists may be able to use these new insulin-producing cells to cure Type 1 diabetes in the future.
Peptide Converts Alpha Into Beta Cells
Researchers from Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute developed another way of creating insulin-producing cells from other pancreatic cells. Type 1 diabetes doesn’t affect alpha cells, which produce the glucagon hormone. So these scientists developed a technique to change glucagon-generating alpha cells into insulin-producing beta cells.
Their secret weapon was a peptide that originated in tree frogs. When they introduced caerulein into mice with very little ability to produce insulin, alpha cells differentiated into beta cells. Further testing confirmed that human pancreatic tissue responded in the same way. As with the Columbia research, scientists will need to turn this technique into a drug requiring extensive testing before it’s available to the public. But once again, this discovery is an important step in a positive direction.
Managing Your Condition
Besides monitoring your blood glucose levels and taking insulin according to your doctor’s orders, the American Diabetes Association recommends lifestyle modifications to manage Type 1 diabetes. Engage in regular physical activity including anything enjoyable that gets you moving such as walking, dancing, playing tennis, and gardening.
Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods including vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, non-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and lean meats. Limit carbohydrate sources including grains (rice, oatmeal, and barley), grain-based foods (bread, cereal, pasta, and crackers), sweets and snack foods (sodas, juice drinks, cake, cookies, candy, and chips), starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, and corn), fruit and juice, milk and yogurt, dried beans, and soy products like veggie burgers.