Type 2 Diabetes
The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone, to convert glucose (also called blood sugar) into energy. People with diabetes can’t produce enough insulin or their body doesn’t respond to insulin, and typically must monitor blood sugar levels and inject insulin into the body periodically. Type 2 diabetes–the most common form of diabetes, is also called adult-onset diabetes, which means it was acquired.
More than 420 million people worldwide have type 2 diabetes, and its causes remain largely unknown. It has been linked to being overweight and/or consuming too much glucose, but not everyone that is overweight and over consuming sugar gets the disease.
The new study performed by researchers at the University Houston has found that type 2 diabetes shares similarities with a group of transmissible neurodegenerative diseases known as “prion diseases.”
“Mad Cow” and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Connection
Prion diseases, also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE’s), are a group of progressive neurodegenerative conditions–the most notorious being the so-called “mad cow disease” and the human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
It has been known that up to 80 percent of all people with type 2 diabetes also have an accumulation of what are called misfolded islet amyloid polypeptide proteins (IAPP). IAPP cells grow in a process called folding, and it is thought that misfolded IAPP damages the beta cells in the pancreas such that they impair the body’s ability to produce insulin needed to lower blood sugar levels.
Misfolded prion proteins also are suspected to be the causes of TSE’s, so the finding is significant. The research is by no means conclusive, but if confirmed could change the way researchers look for a potential cure for type 2 diabetes.
Different Types of Diseases
Prion diseases come in three forms: sporadic, inherited, and acquired. Sporadic diseases are spontaneous–they arise for no known reason. Inherited prion disease can be traced to a faulty gene. Acquired prion diseases are contracted from a medical procedure, transfusion or foodborne illness. The vast majority of human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and similar conditions are thought to be sporadic in nature.
Mad cow disease is spread when healthy cows eat the tissue of another cow that had the disease. The results don’t suggest that diabetes is contagious in the traditional sense like a cold or flu, but that blood transfusions, organ transplant, or infected food, may spread the disease.
In the recent study, researchers injected misfolded IAPP into the pancreases of mice. The study found that mice developed symptoms of type 2 diabetes within weeks of having IAPP injected. The mice lost beta cells and had high blood sugar levels.
If a prion-like mechanism in IAPP is found to cause diabetes, it could be that diabetes can be acquired as well as inherited or sporadic. It could also be that IAPP cells cause diabetes to advance faster.
Researchers caution the results are preliminary, but suggest that they could open up a new path of research into the causes, cures, and prevention of type 2 diabetes.