Most of us understand the importance of insulin in controlling our blood glucose (BG) levels. When our BG levels get too high, we can bring them down by injecting insulin. Insulin is made in and secreted by the beta cells in the pancreas.
Many of us are also aware that another hormone, glucagon, helps bring BG levels up when they get too low. Glucagon is made in and secreted by the alpha cells in the pancreas.
In nondiabetics and people with type 2 diabetes or early type 1 diabetes, glucagon automatically gets secreted when BG levels get too low. But people with longstanding type 1 diabetes often stop producing much glucagon and need glucagon shots to bring up a serious low.
Insulin and glucagon are like the accelerator and brake on your car. And it's the ratio of the two, rather than the absolute amount, that is important. If you have almost no insulin, you might be able to have normal BG levels if you also had almost no glucagon.
In fact, a study done in 1981 in a man who had no pancreas, showed that BG levels could be maintained at about 100 without insulin as long as they didn't give the man glucagon.
The problem is that when the beta cells give out, the alpha cells don't give out as well. In fact, they often secrete even more glucagon than they would in a nondiabetic. Glucagon tells the liver to produce and secrete glucose, so the BG levels stay high even when you don't eat.
Most diabetes researchers focus on beta cells and insulin production, but some are studying the alpha cells and glucagon production as well. A recent study found that hyperglucagonemia (too much glucagon in the blood) actually precedes the decline in insulin secretion seen in diabetes.
These researchers infused rats with a lot of glucose for 10 days. After initial high BG levels, the rats adapted and maintained normal BG levels for 4 days. But then their BG levels started to go up, and by 10 days 89% of the rats had high BG levels.
This isn't surprising. The traditional view is that coping with a lot of glucose and producing a lot of insulin can "exhaust" the beta cells; this is called glucotoxicity.
But the researchers found that the rats weren't producing any more insulin than normal. Instead, their glucagon levels increased fivefold. Thus endogenous glucose production, production of glucose by the liver, was what was making the BG levels go up. And infusing them with anti-glucagon antibodies made their BG levels return to normal.
That is surprising.
The authors conclude that glucotoxicity may first manifest as alpha cell malfunction, before any deficit in beta cells and insulin secretion is seen. This is a new way of looking at how diabetes procedes.
A few months earlier, another paper showed that glutamate (or glutamic acid), an important neurotransmitter in brain and pancreas, is secreted from alpha cells along with glucagon. The glutamate contributes to beta cell destruction; it doesn't affect the alpha cells.
Hence, if you're secreting more glucagon, you'd also be secreting more glutamate, thus accelerating beta cell loss and insulin production when you needed more to oppose the extra glucagon.
The authors also found that the protein GLT1 (glial glutamate transporter 1) could protect the beta cells, and they are working on finding other beta-cell-protective compounds.
Neither of these discoveries will result in an instant cure for type 2 diabetes. The first was done in rodents, and the second was done in isolated human cells. Before they can be translated into actual diabetes treatments, they'd have to be replicated in humans, not isolated cells or rats, and treatments that turned down the alpha cells would have to be developed.
However, for decades, researchers have been studying how type 2 diabetes evolves, and they're still not sure. Of course it's all terribly complex. But is it possible people are looking in the wrong places? Maybe it's time for some new ways of looking at an old problem.
Focusing on the alpha cells is one such approach. Let's hope this work continues.