People with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin every day to control their blood sugar levels. An international research study now suggests that someday, taking oral insulin could delay the onset or even prevent the development of type 1 diabetes for some people.
Diabetes is the condition that results when excess sugar, also known as glucose, accumulates in the blood. When we eat, food is converted to sugar which is transported by the blood to all cells in the body.
Insulin is a hormone that acts like a key to open cells so they can accept sugar from the blood, which they need as an energy source.
Type 1 diabetes results when a person’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. This prevents the body from producing the insulin it needs. People who have type 1 diabetes must test their blood sugar levels and inject insulin several times a day to help their bodies function.
Researchers are able to detect autoantibodies that are targeted against specific cells or systems in the body, including the ones that destroy insulin-producing cells.
Ake Lemmark, Professor of Experimental Diabetes Research at Lund University in Sweden said, "We know that if a person has two autoantibodies and one of them is against insulin, there is a 50 percent risk that they will develop type 1 diabetes within five years. It doesn't matter how old you are."
Lemmark cited a study conducted in Canada and the United States from 1994 to 2003. Participants in the study had relatives with type 1 diabetes, and showed the presence of at least two autoantibodies including one targeted against insulin.
The study showed that participants who took high levels of oral insulin at the start of the study did not develop type 1 diabetes for as long as the oral insulin was continued.
This only happened, however, in those patients who had high levels of insulin autoantibodies. Participants who took an inactive placebo instead of oral insulin developed type 1 diabetes at the expected rate.
Lemmark’s team is continuing to research how oral insulin can help prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes.
One hypothesis suggests that insulin entering the body through the gastrointestinal tract may help the immune system become accustomed to the presence of insulin because it is not immediately recognized as a foreign substance.
This approach is similar to the desensitization process used in allergy treatments where a small dose of allergen is given to help reduce the body’s sensitivity to the substance.
The Swedish TrialNet study with oral insulin will continue for several more years. The study is open to anyone meeting the requirements who is between 3 and 45 years of age.
Science Daily. Stop Diabetes With Insulin Tablets? Web. October 9, 2012.
American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Basics: Type 1. Web. October 9, 2012.
Reviewed October 10, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith