Is Diabetes Curable?
Over 4 million UK residents suffer from diabetes. According to the “Global Report on Diabetes” published by the World Health Organisation in 2016, the number of sufferers worldwide exceeds 422 million. The WHO report highlights a dramatic increase of almost 300% in the incidence of diabetes since 1980 when the number of diabetics was reported to be 108 million internationally. The report estimates that diabetes is directly responsible for 1.5 million deaths every year.
Is There a Definitive Cure for Diabetes?
From a medical perspective, no outright cure for diabetes exists at the time of writing. Nevertheless, diabetic patients can take solace in the fact that there are many proven methods by which the effects of diabetes can be effectively alleviated.
In many cases, simple lifestyle changes can be adopted which will significantly increase the chances of long-term remission. Despite the absence of a cure, there is a realistic possibility of reversing the progress of the disease.
Type 1 Diabetes vs Type 2 Diabetes
There are two major types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes typically manifests in childhood and accounts for 10% of cases worldwide. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body effectively dismantles the islet cells located within the pancreas.
Islet cells are responsible for the production of insulin, the hormone which the body uses to regulate its blood sugar levels. Without any means of producing their own supply of insulin, sufferers of type 1 diabetes are dependent upon life-long treatment, usually in the form of insulin injections.
Type 1 diabetes is partly hereditary, in that the fundamental building blocks of the disease are genetic in origin, although the disease requires an environmental trigger such as a viral infection in order to manifest.
Type 2 diabetes is far more prevalent among the adult population, accounting for 90% of patients. Whereas type 1 diabetes is caused by insulin deficiency, type 2 is related to insulin resistance. It is primarily the result of lifestyle factors such as obesity, poor diet and inadequate exercise. This means that type 2 diabetes is preventable, whereas type 1 diabetes is not. Among European sufferers, excess body fat is a major contributory factor in 60% to 80% of cases of type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that the causes of type 2 diabetes are far better understood than type 1 diabetes. As a consequence, much can be done to combat the effects of the disease and patients themselves can play an active part in improving their chances of remission.
What Progress is Being Made Towards a Cure?
Most of the research relating to type 1 diabetes involves replacing the islet cells which the body has destroyed. Islet cell transplantation is a less risky operation than the transplantation of a patient’s pancreas. The method is still relatively new.
The leading British charity ‘Diabetes UK’ reports that out of fifteen islet cell transplant operations conducted so far in the UK, nine have been successful. The procedure is still in its experimental phase, and consequently, it is hard to predict how successful it will be in the long term, but one UK patient has managed to come off insulin successfully for a year as a result of the treatment.
Furthermore, all recipients have been able to reduce their intake of insulin without any ill effects. All fifteen patients have responded well, with no incidents of hypoglycemia, and each has shown enhanced levels of blood glucose control.
Meanwhile, a San Diego company called ‘Viacyte’ is pioneering the use of stem-cell pouches in an attempt to cure type 1 diabetes. According to a report in ‘New Scientist’ magazine in August 2017, two patients have been treated with subdermal implants, which sit beneath the surface of the skin and release small amounts of insulin to compensate for the missing islet cells.
The company’s spokesman, Paul Laikand, describes it as a “functional cure”, but stresses that it could never strictly be called an outright cure due to the autoimmune nature of the disease.
Regarding type 2 diabetes, remarkable progress is being made in the effort to find a cure. A ‘New Scientist’ article published in May 2017 outlines the work conducted by Dr Fredrik Backhed of the University of Gothenburg, whose research indicates that gut bacteria may play a significant role in the effectiveness of the drug Metformin, which is used to control the blood sugar levels of diabetic patients.
Dr Backhed’s trials centre upon the use of faecal transplants to harvest bacteria from the guts of healthy volunteers and introduce them into the guts of diabetic patients. The research is inconclusive, but Backhed’s findings indicate that diabetics may benefit from dietary modification to alter the composition of their gut bacteria.
What Can Patients Do to Help Themselves?
Although an all-encompassing cure for diabetes may not be on the horizon for some time, diabetic patients can do a great deal to improve the chances of their illness entering remission by educating themselves about the effects of nutrition and lifestyle upon the condition. By striving to maintain a sensible body weight and engaging in moderate exercise, patients can help to keep their blood sugar levels within safe margins.
Further lifestyle modifications such as giving up cigarettes and managing cholesterol levels can have a highly beneficial effect. In extreme cases, weight loss surgery can be an effective measure for those who suffer from type 2 diabetes in connection with obesity. In many cases, patients who undergo weight loss surgery find they can maintain acceptable blood glucose levels without the need for further medication.
By taking responsibility for their lifestyle choices, patients stand an excellent chance of managing their condition and prolonging their health long enough to stand a good chance of seeing the fruits of current research into an effective cure within the coming decades.