The study, which will be published Wednesday (Dec. 12) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that people at risk for Type 1 diabetes had smaller pancreases than people who were not at risk.
“This is the first time this has been noted,” said Martha Campbell-Thompson, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor in the UF College of Medicine department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine. “We still don’t know what causes Type 1 diabetes, but if people have fewer beta cells to begin with, other confounding factors such as a virus or genetics could help push them over into having clinical diabetes. There are a lot of possibilities.”
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s immune system begins attacking its own beta cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin the body needs to convert sugar into energy. The beta cells stop producing insulin, often beginning in childhood. Because of this, patients must take insulin for the rest of their lives. This differs from the more common Type 2 diabetes, which often can be prevented and treated through lifestyle changes, such as improved diet and increased exercise.
Although genetics plays a big role, researchers still don’t know what triggers this autoimmune attack, and after it begins, there is no going back, said Campbell-Thompson, director of the pathology core for the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes, or nPOD, a human pancreas biorepository housed within the UF Diabetes Center of Excellence.
In the current study, Campbell-Thompson and colleagues at the City of Hope National Medical Center examined 164 pancreases from adult organ donors, including those with auto-antibodies linked to an increased risk for Type 1 diabetes. After examining the organs and comparing them with control samples, the researchers discovered that the people at risk for Type 1 diabetes had pancreases roughly three-fourths the weight of those of patients not at risk for the disease. In addition, patients already diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes had pancreases about half the weight of control samples, Campbell-Thompson said.