Does the size of your pancreases relate to the risk of developing type 1 diabetes?

by Barbara Hewitt on December 14, 2012

Does the size of your pancreases relate to the risk of developing type 1 diabetes?

People at risk of developing type 1 diabetes have smaller pancreases and may have fewer insulin producing beta cells than people not at risk, a new study has found. Scientists at the University of Florida say that this is the first time that this has been noted and although they still do not know what causes type 1 diabetes the new finding raises a number of possibilities.

‘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,’ said Professor Martha Campbell-Thompson of the university’s College of Medicine department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine.

‘We still don’t know what causes type 1 diabetes, but 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,’ she explained, ‘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’.

While there is increasing evidence that genetics play a big role, researchers still don’t know what triggers this autoimmune attack and why after it begins there seems to be no going back. The researchers studied 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 of type 1 diabetes had pancreases around 75% of 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.

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‘Had they not become organ donors, these people might have eventually developed type 1 diabetes, so we were trying to carefully characterise their pancreases and their insulin producing cells to see what was going on. A simple part of that was just weighing the pancreas when we got it,’ said Campbell-Thompson, ‘As we got more and more of these donors, a trend started showing up that these pancreases weighed less. They weighed lower than normal controls’.

Now the researchers will look further at how the pancreas works and they aim to uncover new and better ways to not only treat type 1 diabetes, but also to prevent it. Obtaining and analysing human pancreas samples has proved crucial for researchers because mouse models used to uncover new treatments for type 1 diabetes are no longer considered good examples of the disease in humans as there are major differences between human type 1 diabetes and the animal models. ‘It’s really changing some of our ideas about when this autoimmune attack might occur, and we still don’t know all the players,’ said Campbell-Thompson.

The researchers now hope to take the study a step further by using non-invasive methods such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to gauge pancreas size in live patients. ‘This could really change some of the ideas we have about type 1 diabetes, by understanding how it develops we can think of new ways to treat it’ she added.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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