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Diabetes ‘dimmer switch’ discovery at University of Alberta

EDMONTON — University of Alberta researchers have made an important discovery that could one day help treat, delay or even prevent Type 2 diabetes.

The team identified a new molecular pathway that manages the amount of insulin produced by the body. They call it the “dimmer switch,” because it controls how much or how little insulin is secreted when blood sugar increases.

A study detailing their discovery was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Dr. Patrick MacDonald, an associate professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and the lead researcher on the project, said the “dimmer switch” doesn’t work in people with Type 2 diabetes, but it could be repaired — meaning patients could start regulating their own insulin again.

READ MORE: Study: Artificial sweeteners may promote diabetes

The new pathway was found after researchers examined human islet cells from 100 organ donors. The discovery is a potential game changer, but Dr. MacDonald stops short of calling it a potential cure.

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“It’s a big deal. This is a question we’ve been after the answer for. For more than five years we’ve been working on this particular project,” he said.

While restoring the “dimmer switch” in the islet cells of the pancreas may have been proven on a molecular level, Dr. MacDonald said putting the research into clinical practice could take decades.

“To say that the jump in understanding is going lead to a cure in a couple years, that’s a big leap. But you know, we’re getting there.”

There are more than 10 million Canadians living with diabetes or prediabetes, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association.

READ MORE: Study finds half of US adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes

Patients with Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset, can’t produce enough insulin or can’t properly use the insulin their body produces. This differs from patients with Type 1, formerly called juvenile-onset, which occurs when the pancreas does not produce any insulin at all.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90 per cent of all cases, and is associated with obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise. The worldwide epidemic of obesity is now causing a spike in Type 2 diabetes, the occurrence is often referred to as “diabesity.”

READ MORE: Three-year-old among youngest ever to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes

Diabetes can cause high blood sugar levels, which can lead to organ, blood vessel and nerve damage. Poor blood flow and nerve damage can also lead to problems in the lower limbs, particularly the feet.

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Type 2 is initially managed with lifestyle changes, including dietary changes and increasing exercise. Insulin is prescribed if necessary.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan Roughriders’ John Chick says he’s living proof diabetics can succeed on and off football field

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With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News and The Canadian Press

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