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Some diabetics may have a natural mechanism that protects them from long-term complications

March 29, 2011|By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times

Some diabetics may have a naturally occurring mechanism that protects them from many of the long-term complications of the disease, such as retinopathy, peripheral neuropathy and nephropathy, researchers said Tuesday. If scientists could find out how that protection occurs and mimic it, it might be possible to minimize much of the damage that is associated with the disease, which is becoming increasingly common in the United States.

An estimated 1 million Americans now suffer from Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas is no longer able to produce insulin to regulate blood sugar concentrations, and an additional 26 million suffer from Type 2 diabetes, in which tissues throughout the body become increasingly resistant to the effects of insulin. Both types are accompanied by a variety of side effects, including damage to the eyes (retinopathy), kidneys (nephropathy) and nerves (neuropathy).

Dr. Jennifer K. Sun and Dr. George L. King of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston and their colleagues studied 351 Americans from 42 states who have lived with Type 1 diabetes for at least 50 years, an unusually long period of time. They found that many of them had remained free of the typical complications of diabetes: 42.6% did not suffer from retinopathy, 86.9% did not suffer from nephropathy and 39.4% did not suffer from neuropathy. A little over half of them also did not suffer from cardiovascular disease, which is another common complication of diabetes, the team reported in the journal Diabetes Care.

Many of the complications of diabetes are thought to occur when sugar molecules are attached to proteins to produce what are called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. Indeed, the team found that members of the group with certain combinations of AGEs were 7.2 times as likely to have complications as those without them. But they also found that other combinations of AGEs seemed to be associated with protective effects.

"If we can identify what constitutes this protective mechanism, we have the potential to induce such protections in others living with diabetes," King said in a statement. "That's huge."

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