A new study, published in the journal Cell, showed that the pancreas can be triggered to regenerate itself through a type of fasting diet.
Restoring the function of the pancreas – which helps control blood sugar levels – reversed symptoms of diabetes in animal experiments.
According to the American researchers, the diet reboots the body.
Experts said the findings were “potentially very exciting” as they could become a new treatment for the disease.
People are advised not to try this without medical advice.
In the experiments, mice were put on a modified form of the “fasting-mimicking diet”.
It is like the human form of the diet when people spend five days on a low calorie, low protein, low carbohydrate but high unsaturated-fat diet.
It resembles a vegan diet with nuts and soups, but with around 800 to 1,100 calories a day.
Image source Wikimedia
Then they have 25 days eating what they want – so overall it mimics periods of feast and famine.
Previous research has suggested it can slow the pace of ageing.
However, animal experiments showed the diet regenerated a special type of cell in the pancreas called a beta cell.
These are the cells that detect sugar in the blood and release the hormone insulin if it gets too high.
Dr. Valter Longo, from the University of Southern California, said: “Our conclusion is that by pushing the mice into an extreme state and then bringing them back – by starving them and then feeding them again – the cells in the pancreas are triggered to use some kind of developmental reprogramming that rebuilds the part of the organ that’s no longer functioning.”
There were benefits in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in the mouse experiments.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune system destroying beta cells and type 2 is largely caused by lifestyle and the body no longer responding to insulin.
Further tests on tissue samples from people with type 1 diabetes produced similar effects.
Dr. Valter Longo said: “Medically, these findings have the potential to be very important because we’ve shown – at least in mouse models – that you can use diet to reverse the symptoms of diabetes.
“Scientifically, the findings are perhaps even more important because we’ve shown that you can use diet to reprogram cells without having to make any genetic alterations.”
Separate trials of the diet in people have been shown to improve blood sugar levels. The latest findings help to explain why.
However, Dr. Valter Longo said people should not rush off and crash diet.
He said people could “get into trouble” with their health if it was done without medical guidance.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diabetes now affects nearly one in 11 adults.
In a major report, the WHO warned cases had nearly quadrupled to 422 million in 2014 from 108 million in 1980.
High blood sugar levels are a major killer – linked to 3.7 million deaths around the world each year, it says.
WHO officials said the numbers would continue to increase unless “drastic action” was taken.
The report lumps both type 1 and type 2 diabetes together, but the surge in cases is predominantly down to type 2 – the form closely linked to poor lifestyle.
As the world’s waistlines have ballooned – with one-in-three people now overweight, so too has the number of diabetes cases.
Failing to control levels of sugar in the blood has devastating health consequences.
Diabetes triples the risk of a heart attack and leaves people 20 times more likely to have a leg amputated, as well as increasing the risk of stroke, kidney failure, blindness and complications in pregnancy.
The disease itself is the eighth biggest killer in the world, accounting for 1.5 million deaths each year.
A further 2.2 million deaths are linked to high blood sugar levels. And 43% of the deaths were before the age of 70.
In the 1980s the highest rates were found in affluent countries.
In a remarkable transformation, it is now low and middle income countries bearing the largest burden.
The Middle East has seen the prevalence of diabetes soar from 5.9% of adults in 1980 to 13.7% in 2014.
More than three quarters of teenagers in the region are doing less than the recommended level of exercise.
The WHO report said the solution required the whole of society to act.
It is only by keeping blood sugar levels in check that the deadly complications of the disease can be contained.
The report showed that two thirds of low income countries were not able to provide blood sugar monitors or drugs such as insulin or metformin for most people.
“Smart” insulins, which are undergoing trials, could revolutionize the way diabetes is managed, scientists say.
Instead of repeated blood tests and injections throughout the day to keep blood sugar in check, a single dose of smart insulin would keep circulating in the body and turn on when needed.
Animal studies show the technology appears to work – at least in mice.
Scientists plan to move to human trials soon, PNAS journal reports.
Experts caution that it will take years of testing before treatments could become a reality for patients.
People with type 1 diabetes, who either do not make or cannot use their own natural insulin, rely on insulin injections to stay well.
Without these, their blood sugar would get dangerously high.
In the same time injecting insulin can also make blood sugar levels dip too low, and people with type 1 diabetes must regularly check their blood glucose levels to make sure they are in the right zone.
Diabetes experts have been searching for ways to make blood sugar control easier and more convenient for patients, which is where “smart” insulins come in.
There are a few different types in development, but all are designed to automatically activate when blood sugar gets too high and switch off again when it returns to normal.
Dr. Danny Chou from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been testing a smart insulin that he and his colleagues developed in the lab.
It is a chemically modified version of regular, long-acting insulin.
It has an extra set of molecules stuck on the end that binds it to proteins that circulate in the bloodstream. While it is attached to these, the smart insulin is in its switched off mode.
When blood sugar rises, the smart insulin switches on – glucose locks on to the smart insulin and tells it to get to work.
Dr. Danny Chou said: “My goal is to make life easier and safer for diabetics.
“This is an important advance in insulin therapy.”
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) has been funding work into smart insulins.
Researchers at Newcastle University, UK, say the risk of birth defects quadruples if the pregnant mother has diabetes.
The study, published in the journal Diabetologia, analyzed data from more than 400,000 pregnancies in the north-east of England.
The risk of defects such as congenital heart disease and spina bifida were increased.
UK National Guidelines already recommend having good control over blood sugar levels before trying to conceive.
Both Type 1 diabetes, which tends to appear in childhood, and Type 2 diabetes, largely as a result of diet, lead to problems controlling the amount of sugar in the blood.
Researchers at Newcastle University, UK, say the risk of birth defects quadruples if the pregnant mother has diabetes
Diabetes is known to cause problems in pregnancy, such as birth defects, miscarriage and the baby being overweight due to too much sugar.
There is concern that rising levels of diabetes, particularly Type 2, could make the issue worse.
Researchers analyzed data from 401,149 pregnancies between 1996 and 2008 – 1,677 women had diabetes.
The risk of birth defects went from 19 in every 1,000 births for women without pre-existing diabetes to 72 in every 1,000 births for women with diabetes.
The report suggests that sugar levels in the run-up to conception were the “most important” risk factor which could be controlled.
The lead researcher, Dr. Ruth Bell from Newcastle University said: “Many of these anomalies happen in the first four to six weeks.”
Dr. Ruth Bell said the number of pregnancies with poor sugar control were “more than we would like”.
“It is a problem when the pregnancy is not intended or when people are not aware they need to talk to their doctors before pregnancy,” she said.
Guidelines from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence say women should reduce their blood sugar levels to below 6.1% before trying to have a baby.
Sugar levels at conception Risk of birth defect
6.1% One in 34
7% One in 26
8% One in 17
9% One in 12
10% One in nine
Dr. Ruth Bell said: “The good news is that, with expert help before and during pregnancy, most women with diabetes will have a healthy baby.
“The risk of problems can be reduced by taking extra care to have the best possible glucose control before becoming pregnant.”
The study was funded by charity Diabetes UK. Its director of research, Dr. Iain Frame, said: “We need to get the message out to women with diabetes that if they are considering becoming pregnant, then they should tell their diabetes healthcare team, who will make sure they are aware of planning and what next steps they should be taking.
“It also highlights the importance of using contraception if you are a woman with diabetes who is sexually active but not planning to become pregnant.”