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Diabetes Care: Moving Beyond Insulin

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

May 24, 2001 -- A new frontier in diabetes care may be on its way. Most people link the treatment of diabetes with the hormone insulin -- which makes sense since insulin is currently the mainstay of therapy for this disease. New studies, however, demonstrate that other hormones may also have important therapeutic effects.

Diabetes is a condition in which the body does not use sugar properly. Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children and young adults and is caused by an error in the immune system, making it attack the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The more common form of diabetes is type 2, however. This usually starts in middle or older age and is caused by a combination of the pancreas cells being unable to produce enough insulin and the body developing a resistance to the effects of insulin.

According to the American Diabetes Association, about 15.7 million Americans have diabetes, and over 90% of these people have type 2 diabetes. While not immediately life-threatening without insulin treatment, like type 1 diabetes, untreated type 2 diabetes can eventually lead to serious complications in almost every organ of the body, including the eyes, heart, and kidneys.

Two new studies have demonstrated that a hormone called glucagon-like peptide (GLP)-1 might be an important new therapy for type 2 diabetes, possibly even offering a cure, by not only stimulating the body to produce insulin in a normal fashion but also causing it to produce new pancreas cells (called beta cells) that produce insulin.

"This is perhaps only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the newer compounds and hormones that we may be able to look into to help with diabetes control," says Claresa Levetan, MD, who reviewed the studies for WebMD. "It is my personal opinion as an endocrinologist who takes care of large numbers of patients with both type 1 and 2 diabetes that even patients who are on tight control, even patients who are on insulin pump therapy where we're trying to mimic the pancreas as much as possible, there still is room for improvement. This [research] demonstrates that there are other possible ways that we can improve diabetes control by having greater regulation on [the pattern of natural insulin production in the body]."

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