Diabetes researchers from across the world shared their latest breakthroughs at this year’s annual European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) conference. Here we share a few of the conference highlights.
Diet in the early years linked to type 1 diabetes risk
Our immune system normally protects us against infection and illness but in type 1 diabetes, it turns on the body and attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. We don’t yet know what causes this to happen but scientists think that it could be down to a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors. One of the many possible environmental triggers being studied is diet during childhood.
Ms Lampousi and colleagues from the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, conducted the first major review of studies on the link between diet and type 1 diabetes in children. Just over 150 studies made it into their review. They combined all the results for a meta-analysis, where information from different studies is combined together to look at overall trends, to give an overall picture of the effect of diet in childhood on type 1 diabetes risk.
Findings showed that babies who were breastfed for at least 6-12 months were 61% less likely to develop type 1 than those breastfed for less. Those given only breast milk for the first 2-3 months were 31% less likely to develop the condition than those who were not exclusively breastfed. They also found that early introduction of cow’s milk, gluten and fruit into a baby’s diet was linked to increased risk of type 1 diabetes.
While the many health benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby are well known, the researchers warned that more, and better quality, research is needed to understand if changes to the diet in the early years can help to reduce the risk of type 1 diabetes.
Can people with lower body weights put their type 2 diabetes into remission?
Our landmark Counterpoint and DiRECT studies have given hope to millions of people with type 2 diabetes who are living with obesity or overweight by showing that it is possible to put their type 2 diabetes into remission. But we also know that 10% of people with type 2 have a ‘healthy’ bodyweight. Is remission possible for them?
People with lower body weights may still store fat in places that are harmful to health. Internal fat around the pancreas and liver could be one of the reasons why these people can develop type 2 diabetes. The Diabetes UK-funded ReTUNE study is testing if people with a BMI below 27 can lose internal body fat and go into remission by following a low-calorie weight loss programme.
The study lead, Professor Roy Taylor, at Newcastle University, gave a sneak preview of the early ReTUNE findings at the conference. So far, the research team has finished collecting information from around half of the participants, who had an average BMI of 24.5. Those on the low-calorie programme lost weight and lost fat from their pancreas and liver, with around two thirds going into remission. Research will finish collecting information from the rest of the participants next year.
Widely used medication to improve bone health may also reduce type 2 diabetes risk
13.6 million people in the UK are at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and new treatments are needed to help more people avoid getting it. Dr Rikke Viggers, of Aalborg University Hospital, Aalborg, Denmark, presented new research at the conference that looked at whether long-term use of alendronate, a cheap and readily available drug that is commonly used to treat osteoporosis by strengthening bones, is associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Dr Viggers studied medical records of over 600,000 people in Denmark between 2008 and 2018 to look for people who had been prescribed alendronate and compare them to those who hadn’t. Those who had taken the drug were a third less likely to have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than those who had never taken it. Taking the drug for eight years or more reduced their risk of type 2 by over 50%. Smoking, alcohol use, body weight, income and being married did not explain the association between alendronate and reduced risk of developing type 2.
While further research is needed to find out how alendronate works in the body to reduce the risk of type 2, these new findings will help doctors to make decisions about the best treatment for people with bone health issues who are also at risk of type 2 diabetes.
Shedding light on the link between coronavirus and diabetes
New research presented by Dr Shuibing Chen from Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, USA, and Professor Francesco Dotta from the University of Siena, Italy, has shown us more about the link between diabetes and coronavirus.
From research conducted over the last 18 months of the pandemic, we know that people with diabetes have an increased risk of serious illness from coronavirus. We are also beginning to see some early evidence that the virus could be triggering new cases of diabetes. But we still don’t really understand how these two conditions are linked.
The new research shows that the virus enters and infects the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas through a protein called ACE-2. This makes the beta cells stop working normally and produce less insulin. Inflammation in the body, as seen in some people with diabetes, may also make it easier for the virus to get in to cells around the body and damage them. These processes could begin to explain how coronavirus and diabetes are biologically linked.
It is hoped that this research will help in the development of new, effective ways to treat people at risk of, or living with, diabetes who have coronavirus.
Preventing dementia in people with type 2 diabetes
Dementia, a group of conditions that affect the brain and cause memory loss and other changes to brain function, is more common in people with type 2 diabetes. Dr April van Gennip from Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands presented new research suggesting there are ways for people with type 2 diabetes to reduce their dementia risk.
Dr van Gennip looked at medical information and brain scans of around 88,000 people from a UK database, covering a nine-year period. Around 10,000 people had type 2 diabetes. The findings showed that people with type 2 diabetes who met at least five health targets relating to not smoking, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, body weight, kidney health, physical activity and diet, had a lower risk of developing dementia. Keeping blood sugars in target range, being a non-smoker, and maintaining good kidney health looked like the best ways of reducing the risk.
Knowing which factors are associated with dementia in people with type 2 diabetes will help healthcare professionals support those with type 2 to keep their brains healthy and prevent or delay the start of dementia.