The onset of type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but research has come up with a variety of triggers are responsible for the immune system’s initial attack on the insulin-producing beta-cells from the pancreas.
To clarify, keep in mind that these triggers do not cause diabetes in anyone and everyone but only in those with a genetic predisposition to developing the disease. Genetic testing can help determine a person’s risk, but even a 3 percent risk can still lead to an eventual diagnosis, so genetic testing isn’t really a source of relief for those concerned about their own genetic predisposition.
Known triggers in teenagers with a predisposition, for example, the flu can be the stressful event the body experiences that triggers this immune response. In children, a tremendous amount of research has gone into a theory around cow’s milk, which contains a gene called allele-1, that allof our bodies attack, and thus it’s possible the immune system also begins attacking the beta-cells at this point.
For those who don’t develop type 1 diabetes until adulthood, it often comes after a stressful event such as a divorce, a death in the family, or tremendously stressful lifestyle on the body such as intense work hours combined with poor health habits, very little sleep, etc.
What is causing the immune system to attack the beta-cells?
But what is really happening in the body when this onset occurs? Why does the body want to attack the cells specifically responsible for producing insulin?
A University of Colorado research team believes they have pinpoint one potential cause (rather than a trigger) of type 1 diabetes, explains a local Denver CBS news-station.
“We’ve been studying T cells in Type 1 diabetes,” said Thomas Delong, a research assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who has lived with type 1 diabetes himself since he was 12 years old.
“I became interested in studying and asking questions, ‘Why does this happen to me? Why does my immune system turn against me?’” explains Delong.
Within the immune system, T cells are responsible for killing foreign cells for the sake of fighting off and preventing disease. When you receive a vaccine containing dead foreign cells, for example, T cells are created and “trained” to fight that disease so that if you ever come into contact with it, you already have the soldiers you need to fight it off.
In people with type 1 diabetes, T cells are killing the beta cells.
“There has to be something happening in the beta cells that triggers the attack,” Delong explained. This research expedition is funded by the American Diabetes Association’s Pathway to Stop Diabetes program–a highly competitive grant.
For the past decade, Delong and his team have been “painstakingly stripping down the insulin producing cells” and observing their reactions when exposed to T cells. By doing so, they’ve pinpointed a significant discovery in the cause of type 1 diabetes.
“We found a new type of protein modification,” Delong explains.
That protein modification is different than other proteins: it is half insulin and half something else. The T cells identify that protein as foreign and attack.
“Because the immune system sees that and thinks it might be foreign because it’s never seen that before, it attacks the junction of these proteins,” Delong explained.
Delong and his team’s truest goal is to prevent the onset of the disease from occurring at all. Now that they’ve identified what the T cells begin attacking the beta cells, they can begin researching a way to stop that attack.