What Is Type 1 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body attacks and destroys the cells that make insulin – the pancreatic beta cells, also known as islet cells. When they are gone, there are no other cells that can produce insulin.
The loss of insulin producing cells affects our blood sugar levels. Blood sugar is the fuel for our bodies, in the same way petrol is the fuel for a car. Insulin is a hormone that acts to control the flow of fuel so we have enough to carry on with everyday life.
The release of insulin from beta cells is triggered by a rise in blood sugar, for instance, following a meal. Insulin then travels through the blood and helps to get sugar from the blood into muscle and fat cells where it can be used for energy. Without insulin, blood sugar levels rise to dangerously high levels that can cause organ damage.
People with type 1 diabetes have to monitor their sugar levels with a regular blood test, and take insulin by injection (pictured above) several times a day. Despite this, life expectancy is decreased for people with type 1 diabetes. It is thought that people diagnosed before the age of 30 years will lose more than ten years of life expectancy.
Another major concern is the risk of long-term complications affecting the eyes, kidneys, and the cardiovascular system. Even with insulin treatment, type 1 diabetes can result in long-term complications that can dramatically impact quality of life.
One of the more worrying complications resulting from type 1 diabetes is hypoglycemic unawareness. When an individual’s blood sugar drops, they will usually feel warning symptoms like shaking and sweating. However, an individual with hypoglycemic unawareness will not recognise these symptoms, and may not realise their blood sugar is low. If not recognised and treated appropriately, the results of a hypoglycemic unawareness episode can be serious, and can include loss of consciousness, brain damage, coma and death.
Kidney damage is another major complication of type 1 diabetes. The kidneys contain millions of tiny filters that remove waste from the blood. High levels of sugar in the blood can damage these filters. Severe damage can lead to kidney failure or irreversible end-stage kidney disease, which requires dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Although type 1 diabetes can be managed with insulin, a significant proportion of people will develop serious complications. This is why people like Garvan’s Associate Professor Shane Grey are searching for new cures.