Recently researchers at LJI reported they prevented beta cell deaths in mice by blocking nerve signals to the pancreas. Why is this important? They may be one step closer to understanding what causes diabetes. The hope is that understanding will lead to a cure. This is what you need to know.
What is the Pancreas?
Your pancreas is about six inches long. It lies in the back of the abdomen, on your right side behind your liver. The pancreas creates a cocktail of juices called enzymes. These enzymes travel from the pancreas through a duct to the upper part of your intestine. There they break down the food you eat into fats, proteins, and starches.
Your pancreas also produces hormones that carry messages to other parts of your body. (Read more about the pancreas.)
One hormone the healthy pancreas makes is insulin. It makes insulin in specialized cells called beta cells.
What is Type I Diabetes
Nearly 1.6 million Americans have a life-threatening, but treatable condition. Their beta cells die. When their beta cells die, their bodies do not produce insulin. It happens in every race, gender, and body size and shape. Even mammals can have type I diabetes.
Without insulin, you will fall ill within hours. If the high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) isn’t treated you will die. Death comes in days or may take as long as two weeks, depending on your general health and blood sugar levels. (Read more about diabetic ketoacidosis.)
There is no cure for diabetes. People who have type I diabetes must take insulin. Patients manage the disease with medication, a healthy lifestyle and diet and careful monitoring of the blood sugars. Type 1 diabetics can and do live long and happy lives. (Read more about how to manage diabetes.)
How do You Get Diabetes?
We know the beta cells of the pancreas produce insulin for the body. And we know insulin is essential for our body to turn the food we eat into energy for the cells of our body.
In type 1 Diabetics, the cells of the pancreas that make insulin die off. This dying off can be a long process that takes years before the person knows it’s a problem. It can appear at any age from newborn to a senior of advanced age.
While risk factors for type 1 diabetes include genetic and environmental factors, researchers don’t know why the disease seems to attack at random. Some scientists believe an autoimmune response may be what’s killing those cells. Autoimmune response is where the cells meant to fight off infection attack other cells in your body. In this case, your beta cells. (Read more about the possible causes of type 1 diabetes.)
Researchers at the LaJolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) are working to uncover the cause of type 1 diabetes. They’ve noticed that the beta cells in a diabetic’s pancreas die off in patches. Some areas have large patches that die and other areas are untouched.
There are many theories about why this occurs. Inadequate blood supply, an attack by a virus, and an autoimmune response are some theories.
They turned to a new field called neuroimmunology, which is the idea that nerve signals can affect immune cells. Could nerve cells drive immune cells to attack the pancreas?
They induced beta cell death in mice. Some mice weren’t untreated, some received beta blockers, and some were “denervated.”
Denervation is a chemical or physical block that prevents nerve messages to pass. The block can be temporary (often used today in surgeries) or permanent. Here, they surgically cut the nerve or inject it with a neurotoxin or a medication that blocks nerve signals. Then they “used LJI’s world-class imaging facility to track the pattern of beta cell death in living mice.”
The “denervated” mice did not experience beta cell death. “It was like the pancreas had gone dark and immune cells were unable to find their targets.”
They’ve Just Started
They need to do a lot more testing and research to confirm that this works.
But these results suggest that other autoimmune diseases may benefit from denervation. Arthritis, vitiligo, and lupus erythematosus are a few of the many autoimmune diseases. (Read more about autoimmune disease. )
Before this method can be used on humans, doctors first need a reliable way to predict who was at risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
And, I’m guessing, there will need to be more research about the effects of denervation on other functions of the pancreas.
Science Provides Slow Hope
What you need to know is that it will take years to explore this treatment and its consequences. Perhaps it will also take years before people accept it as a preventative. You may remember that my niece has type 1 diabetes. Would I recommend she be an early adopter? My answer would depend on information they discover between now and then. If you knew positively that you or your child would develop type 1 diabetes, would you ask for permanent denervation?