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Fortunately, nowadays, diabetes boasts one of the largest research efforts of all diseases, primarily to achieve control over the condition, but also in terms of its prevention.
Type 1 diabetes
One of the most active areas of research involves attempts to produce an artificial pancreas. The idea is to combine a subcutaneous insulin infusion system (“insulin pump”) and a continuous blood glucose monitoring device with a “control unit” that constantly decides how much insulin to administer based on the patient’s sugar levels. Developers are also studying the possibility of combining both insulin and glucagon (the hormone that increases blood sugar levels and therefore serves to correct hypoglycaemia) in one infusion system.
For many years now, doctors have been trying, but with very little success, to transplant pancreatic islets (insulin-producing cells in the pancreas) using cells taken from donor cadavers in order to create a source of insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes. Research is currently focused on improving the degree of immunosuppression required for the transplant, defining the implant site and extending its survival. We must not forget the possibility of using animal islets, such as those collected from pigs.
It has been a while now since the use of stem cells received a great deal of attention in the treatment of a variety of diseases, including diabetes. The possibility of obtaining insulin-producing stem cells from embryos or adults (from the pancreas, skin or umbilical cord, amongst others) in order to collect large quantities of cellular material for transplant is a very strong line of research. Another interesting area of research is the possible application of gene therapy, which has already managed to control diabetes in study animals by modifying the genetic characteristics of certain cell groups.
The possibility of acting on the patient’s immune system to stop the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic cells, i.e., to produce something similar to a vaccine, is also in the study phase.
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
While discussing research into diabetes we must not forget the new drug therapies, featuring new insulins or new families of oral antidiabetic agents. Although these may not be as noteworthy as those mentioned above they do improve the day-to-day circumstances of people with diabetes.
Another aspect is psychoeducational research centred on discovering the best strategies in therapeutic education to help diabetes patients voluntarily choose to follow their treatment – one of the main problems when treating diabetes and other chronic diseases is treatment adherence. Even the best treatments lose their effectiveness if people with diabetes do not follow them correctly.