Right now, there are many ways to screen for type 1 diabetes risk, from genetic tests to tests for autoantibodies (immune system proteins) associated with the disease. But there hasn’t been an easy way to know when the immune system has actually started killing pancreatic beta cells, until enough cells have died that your pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin.
So the discovery of a blood marker of beta cell death, by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), may turn out to be clinically useful in the future — especially if therapies are developed that can help reverse the process of beta cell loss while there are still enough cells left for normal insulin production.
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In an article published in the American Journal of Physiology — Endocrinology and Metabolism, the researchers note that the biomarker they discovered — called microRNA-204, or miR-204 — plays an important role in active beta cells, and is released into the blood when a beta cell dies. Only when enough beta cells die does miR-204 become elevated in the blood, as noted in a UAB news release.
Based on analysis of numerous blood samples, the researchers found that miR-204 was elevated in both children and adults with early type 1 diabetes, as well as in people with autoantibodies that put them at high risk for type 1. It wasn’t elevated in people with type 2 diabetes. In people with recent-onset type 1, lower miR-204 was associated with greater remaining beta cell function.
This discovery represents “a non-invasive, straightforward method sensitive enough to detect early beta-cell loss” in type 1, notes study author Anath Shalev, MD. She adds that such a test is necessary “to allow for any therapeutic intervention to be started as early as possible in the disease process, and ideally before the majority of beta cells has been destroyed.”
A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree in government from Harvard University. He writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.