Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. – genetics, sugary diets and the lack of exercise all play a part. In a recent Instagram survey ( it is now the second largest search engine in the world, btw) it was found 97% of us know someone with diabetes. That number surprised me, as I assumed it would be 100%.
The CDC reports the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes increased from 0.93% in 1958 to 9.40% in 2015. In 2015, 23.4 million people had diagnosed diabetes, compared to only 1.6 million, and it is estimated that number has now risen to above 30 million. If current disease rates continue, one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050. Over time, the condition can lead to kidney failure, limb amputations and blindness, among other complications.
The CDC report called the trend alarming, yet there is hope.
A Little History – Insulin Isolated in Toronto
On this day in 1958, at the University of Toronto, Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best successfully isolate insulin–a hormone they believe could prevent diabetes–for the first time. Within a year, the first human sufferers of diabetes were receiving insulin treatments, and countless lives were saved from what was previously regarded as a fatal disease.
Diabetes has been recognized as a distinct medical condition for more than 3,000 years, but its exact cause was a mystery until the 20th century. By the early 1920s, many researchers strongly suspected that diabetes was caused by a malfunction in the digestive system related to the pancreas gland, a small organ that sits on top of the liver. At that time, the only way to treat the fatal disease was through a diet low in carbohydrates and sugar and high in fat and protein. Instead of dying shortly after diagnosis, this diet allowed diabetics to live–for about a year.
A breakthrough came at the University of Toronto in the summer of 1921, when Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best successfully isolated insulin from canine test subjects, produced diabetic symptoms in the animals, and then began a program of insulin injections that returned the dogs to normalcy. On November 14, the discovery was announced to the world.
Two months later, with the support of J.J.R. MacLeod of the University of Toronto, the two scientists began preparations for an insulin treatment of a human subject. Enlisting the aid of biochemist J.B. Collip, they were able to extract a reasonably pure formula of insulin from the pancreases of cattle from slaughterhouses. On January 23, 1921, they began treating 14-year-old Leonard Thompson with insulin injections. The diabetic teenager improved dramatically, and the University of Toronto immediately gave pharmaceutical companies license to produce insulin, free of royalties. By 1923, insulin had become widely available, and Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.
8 Amazing Breakthroughs Giving Us Hope
According to recent research, we’re not entirely sure how many diseases the label ‘diabetes’ covers. But no matter what causes our bodies to struggle with their blood sugar levels, it’s a serious condition that requires daily care. Scientists have been working hard to find cures, new treatments, and better management techniques for the millions of people worldwide dealing with diabetes.
Here are a few of the latest developments you need to know about.
- Insulin producing implants made from stem cells
Clinical trials began last year for testing for ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct device; a credit-card sized implant containing insulin-producing cells derived from stem cells. Previous research had shown the implants could mature and function inside patients. Together with a cohort of volunteers who started testing in January, the new research should tell us soon whether the technology can help people with type-1 diabetes.
- Brand new beta cells
Type 1 diabetes develops when a person’s immune system wipes out insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. But it turns out that another type of immature beta cell has been hiding in our pancreases all along, and scientists think it might be possible to use these ‘virgin beta cells’ to restore the functionality of the pancreas.
- A common blood pressure medication
A drug on the World Health Organization’s list of essential drugs could have another purpose; blocking a molecule implemented in the autoimmune response that can give rise to type-1 diabetes.
Called methyldopa, the compound already has an important job treating high blood pressure in pregnant women and children. It’s left to be seen if it could help reduce the incidence of diabetes in some way, but the fact it’s already being used – rather than being stuck in the lab – makes for a promising find.
- A unique transplant
One woman with severe type 1 diabetes has spent a year without insulin injections thanks to an experimental transplant. Doctors implanted insulin-producing cells into a fatty membrane in the stomach cavity, and the success of the operation is paving the way towards more people receiving artificial pancreases.
- An extreme diet
A clinical trial conducted on just 298 volunteers in the UK last year found an intensive weight management program could put type-2 diabetes into remission for those who lose a significant amount of weight. The subjects were limited to roughly 850 calories a day for three to five months, consuming mostly soups and health shakes, before having more food introduced.
A similar study conducted on rats last year in the US also showed low calorie diets might help those who can stick to it reverse their condition.
- Glucose-monitoring contact lenses
Until we can nail down a cure, there will always been a need to monitor those messy blood glucose levels. Checking your tears for glucose using a smart contact lens, or monitoring your sweat with color changing ink, could be a whole lot less invasive than drawing blood. They’re not new ideas, but constant improvements in miniaturizing technology could mean these kinds of devices aren’t too far off.
- Loneliness could make us prone
While we can list a variety of genetic and lifestyle factors that affect a body’s growing resistance to insulin, there’s still a lot to learn. A study published late last year involving nearly 3,000 subjects aged 40 to 75 found there seems to be a significant relationship between social isolation and type-2 diabetes.
It’s not clear what the link might be, but having a few housemates or a local social group could make all the difference.
- Mexican cavefish evolved to be diabetic
While developing a resistance to insulin is bad news in humans, the pale, eyeless animal known as a Mexican cavefish evolved a new version of the insulin receptor that makes it harder for the hormone to bind. This isn’t exactly a problem for the fish, which have also evolved other features to help it compensate. Studying its biology might help shine a light on how diabetes evolved in humans, and maybe even lead to new treatments.
- There is a gene for that (?)
By studying one family with rare blood sugar disorders, scientists have identified a gene mutation that can give rise to both high and low blood sugar. This discovery could lead to new treatments for diabetes.
Diabetes is a condition in which the body is unable to produce enough of the hormone insulin, or it cannot use it effectively. As a result, blood sugar levels become too high. It is estimated that around 30.3 million people in the United States are living with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, followed by type 1 diabetes.
One of the commonest forms of monogenic diabetes is maturity onset diabetes of the young, which accounts for approximately 2 percent of all diabetes cases in the U.S. among people under the age of 20; but there are some rarer forms that account for just 1–4 percent of cases in the U.S. These are known as monogenic diabetes, and they arise from a mutation in a single gene that is passed down from one or both parents. Such mutations impair the function of beta cells, which are cells in the pancreas that secrete insulin.
For this latest study, lead author Prof. Márta Korbonits — of the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the United Kingdom — and her colleagues studied a unique family, some members of which had diabetes, while others had insulinomas, or insulin-producing tumors in the pancreas.
Notably, diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar levels, while insulinomas cause blood sugar levels to become too low. How can both of these conflicting conditions run in the same family? According to Prof. Korbonits and team, a single gene mutation is to blame.
MAFA mutation uncovered
By analyzing the genomes of the family, the researchers were surprised to find a single mutation in the MAFA gene that was present in both the family members with diabetes and those with insulinomas. The MAFA gene normally regulates the production of insulin in beta cells. A mutation in this gene leads to the production of an abnormal MAFA protein, which seems to be more abundant in beta cells than normal MAFA proteins.
The researchers were able to confirm the presence of the MAFA gene mutation in another family, which also had members with both diabetes and insulinomas. Overall, the results indicate that a mutation in the MAFA gene may be a cause of both high and low blood sugar levels, but precisely how the mutation causes such conditions remains unclear.
“We believe,” explains first study author Dr. Donato Iacovazzo, also of the William Harvey Research Institute at QMUL, “this gene defect is critical in the development of the disease and we are now performing further studies to determine how this defect can, on the one hand, impair the production of insulin to cause diabetes, and on the other, cause insulinomas.”
These results — now published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — represent the first time that a mutation in the MAFA gene has been associated with disease, and the researchers believe that they could pave the way for new treatments for common and rare forms of diabetes.
“While the disease we have characterized is very rare, studying rare conditions helps us understand more about the physiology and the mechanisms underlying more common diseases. We hope that in the longer-term this research will lead to us exploring new ways to trigger the regeneration of beta cells to treat more common forms of diabetes.”
– Study co-author Prof. Sian Ellard, University of Exeter, U.K.
Overall Numbers, Diabetes and Prediabetes
- Prevalence: In 2015, 30.3 million Americans, or 9.4% of the population, had diabetes.
- Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have type 1 diabetes.
- Undiagnosed: Of the 30.3 million adults with diabetes, 23.1 million were diagnosed, and 7.2 million were undiagnosed.
- Prevalence in Seniors: The percentage of Americans age 65 and older remains high, at 25.2%, or 12.0 million seniors (diagnosed and undiagnosed).
- New Cases: 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.
- Prediabetes: In 2015, 84.1 million Americans age 18 and older had prediabetes.
- Deaths: Diabetes remains the 7th leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, with 79,535 death certificates listing it as the underlying cause of death, and a total of 252,806 death certificates listing diabetes as an underlying or contributing cause of death.
If your system seems to be handling sugar poorly, consider talking to a physician. You can quickly find and connect with one in the largest ever healthcare ecosystem designed to vastly improve the relationship doctors and patients are meant to enjoy and find great value in….
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Diabetes: Surprising gene discovery could fuel new treatments
Published: Tuesday 16 January 2018 Written by: Honor Whiteman
8 Amazing Breakthroughs in Diabetes Research That Are Giving Us Hope
BY SIGNE DEAN & MIKE MCRAE
APRIL 02, 2018