ORLANDO, Fla. – Everyone with diabetes shares the same weakness: insulin.

Insulin is a hormone that’s needed to convert sugar from the foods we eat into energy. In Type 2 diabetes, people do not produce enough insulin or their bodies become resistant to the hormone – or both.

In Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, insulin becomes a casualty of an overactive immune system.

For reasons that are not understood, the body attacks the cells that make insulin inside the pancreas. At the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, Alex Strongin and his colleagues are trying to reduce the slaughter.

Using a drug that originally was developed for cancer, the researchers have been able to slow the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in mice. The drug works by keeping the body’s warrior cells – T-cells, a key component of the immune system – from attacking.

Simply put, the drug works like Super Glue, binding the T-cells to the periphery of the production sites. From that distance, they can’t do any harm.

“If you shut the door, you cannot get into the room, correct?” Strongin asked.

He and other scientists at Burnham have been studying the drug’s effect on mice.

Though not a cure, it did reduce the need for extra insulin to be given to diabetic mice.

If the drug has the same impact on people, it could lessen their dependence on insulin injections. People with Type 1 diabetes typically have to give themselves shots every day to keep their insulin levels up.

“Even if we can reduce the need for insulin so people only need a shot, not once a day, but once a week, that would be of benefit,” Strongin said.

Another Burnham scientist also is focusing on insulin production in the pancreas. Dr. Fred Levine and his colleagues are trying to answer a fundamental question: Does the pancreas harbor stem cells that can replace the insulin-producing cells lost to diabetes?

According to Levine’s work so far, the answer is yes.

The finding is important, because researchers hope to someday replenish an ailing pancreas with a new army of cells that can churn out insulin and restore the body’s ability to regulate sugar.

Levine, a pediatric geneticist, said obesity and diabetes present a dire threat to our nation’s health. But his interest is also personal. Levine lost his mother to complications from Type 2 diabetes. Unless something is done, most American families will be dealing with the medical fallout.

“This is an enormous public-health problem, and it’s only going to get worse as our population ages,” he said.

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