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UF study finds link between pancreas size and Type 1 diabetes

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Although it’s still not known what causes Type 1 diabetes, people at risk for the disease may have smaller pancreases than those not at risk, a University of Florida study found.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that happens when the body attacks its own beta cells, which are found in the pancreas. Beta cells are necessary to produce insulin the body needs to convert sugar to energy.

This is the first time smaller pancreas size has been linked to Type 1 diabetes, said Martha Campbell-Thompson, a pathology professor at UF. Campbell-Thompson is also the director of a human pancreas biorepository housed within the UF Diabetes Center of Excellence.

“It implies that if there’s a smaller pancreas, there may be a smaller number, a fewer number of insulin-producing beta cells,” she said. “Those cells produce the insulin that people need in order to process their glucose. And the lack of those beta cells is what causes diabetes.”

The study, which was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined 164 pancreases from adult organ donors, including those with auto-antibodies linked to an increased risk for Type 1 diabetes.

When compared with control samples, the researchers noted that the people at risk for Type 1 diabetes had pancreases about three-fourths the weight of those of patients not at risk for the disease.

Patients with Type 1 diabetes had pancreases about half the weight of control samples.

The results of the study stress the need to look much earlier in people who are at risk for Type 1 diabetes and see how to boost their beta cells, Campbell-Thompson said.

Ultimately, researchers hope to better understand how the pancreas works, how to improve diabetes treatment and how to prevent diabetes, she said.

Hana Engroff wrote this story online.

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