“I believe it won’t be long before we can cure diabetes with a number of different therapies depending on the needs of the patient,” Dr. Paolo Fiorina of Boston Children’s Hospital said this summer. “Then, if the right screening techniques for diabetes could be developed, it would be entirely possible in many cases that we could prevent the disease from ever developing in children.”
Diabetes can be fatal. The death of Queens six-year-old Claudialee Gomez-Nicanor, which we detailed in this week’s cover story, illustrated how a child can go from seemingly healthy to intensive care in a matter of weeks if the condition is not properly treated.
As Fiorina declared, though, research is quickly gaining ground on the disease. His optimism is rooted in a discovery he and his colleagues published earlier this year: They pinpointed the specific mechanism that causes diabetes.
The disease stems directly from high blood sugar. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system kills off cells inside the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone that brings the body’s glucose supply to muscle and fat. If the body doesn’t get more insulin, the person will die.
But it remained a mystery exactly why those white blood cells begin attacking the insulin-producers in the first place.
In the research paper, published in January in the journal Diabetes, Fiorina’s team figured out the trigger that sicced the white bloods cells on the pancreas–a molecular pathway called ATP/P2X7R. They found it by studying hundreds of diabetic animals.
The discovery, Fiorina suggested, may open the door for the most promising possible diabetes cure so far, cell transplantation. Research on the treatment–in which doctors take donated insulin-producing cells and inject it into a diabetic person’s liver–had hit a wall because often the patient’s immune system would just attack the new insulin-producers.
“With the cause identified, we can now focus on treatment options,” he said.
According to Boston Children’s hospital, the researchers are “a few years away from testing these therapies in children.”