Beta cells hope for type 1 diabetes

Patients with type 1 diabetes could be treated without the need for insulin injections, new research has suggested.

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Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune system destroys the cells making insulin

Patients with type 1 diabetes could be treated without the need for insulin injections, new research has suggested.

Scientists at the University of Exeter Medical School say their study shows around three quarters of patients with the condition possess a small number of beta cells that are not only producing insulin, but are producing it in response to food in the same way as someone without the condition.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune system destroys the cells making insulin, the substance that enables glucose in the blood to gain access to the body's cells.

Researchers measured how much natural insulin they produced and whether it responded to meals, a sign that the cells are healthy and active. They found 73% produced low levels of insulin, and that this occurred regardless of how long the patient was known to have diabetes.

Researchers studied the response of the insulin production to a meal to prove that the low level insulin production was coming from working beta cells.

Dr Richard Oram, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study, said: "It's extremely interesting that low levels of insulin are produced in most people with type 1 diabetes, even if they've had it for 50 years.

"The fact that insulin levels go up after a meal indicates these remaining beta cells can respond to a meal in the normal way - it seems they are either immune to attack, or they are regenerating.

"The researchers used new technologies which are able to detect far lower levels of insulin than was previously possible. The levels are so low that scientists had previously thought no insulin was produced."

Type 1 diabetes affects around 200,000 people in the UK alone. The disease commonly starts in childhood and causes the body's own immune system to attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leaving the patient dependent on life-long insulin injections.

Dr Oram added: "We are now able to study this area in much more detail. By studying differences between those who still make insulin and those who do not, we may help work out how to preserve or replenish beta cells in type 1 diabetes.

"It could be a key step on the road to therapies which protect beta cells or encourage them to regenerate."