New Clues to Diabetes' Cause and Treatment

By Ezzell, C. | Science News, December 21, 1991 | Go to article overview

New Clues to Diabetes' Cause and Treatment


Ezzell, C., Science News


Type I diabetes, the most serious form of the disease, results from an abnormality in a class of immune-system proteins, a new study involving human diabetics indicates. A second study suggests that transplants of hollow fibers containing pancreas cells may one day help diabetics maintain normal blood-sugar levels without insulin.

Usually striking by early adolescence, Type I diabetes -- the insulin-dependent form of the disease -- currently afflicts roughly 1 million people in the United States. Because the pancreatic "beta" cells no longer produce enough insulin to process diet-derived sugar, these diabetics must frequently inject themselves with supplemental insulin.

In recent years, researchers have gathered evidence implicating Type I diabetes as an autoimmune disorder, in which the immune system turns against the body. They have found antibodies to beta cells in the blood of diabetics (SN: 6/18/88, p.389). People with a particular immune-system marker also prove more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases, and therefore run a higher risk of developing diabetes (SN: 6/10/89, p.357). The marker, a cell-surface protein belonging to the "major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II," normally recognizes foreign proteins.

Denise Faustman of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and her colleagues now suggest that the disease might instead be associated with MHC class I proteins, which normally help the immune system discriminate between healthy body cells and those that are precancerous or infected by viruses. …

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