Most people with type 1 diabetes still have active insulin-producing cells in their pancreas, a new study shows.
The finding suggests it may be possible one day to preserve or replenish these cells.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells, and it was believed that all these cells were lost within a few years of developing the disease.
But British researchers used new technology that enabled them to detect far lower levels of insulin than was previously possible. They tested 74 people with type 1 diabetes, and found that 73% of them had working beta cells that produced low levels of insulin, regardless of how long they'd had the disease.
The study was published in the journal Diabetologia.
"It's extremely interesting that low levels of insulin are produced in most people with type 1 diabetes, even if they've had it for 50 years," study leader Dr Richard Oram, of the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom, said in a university news release. "The fact that insulin levels go up after a meal indicates these remaining beta cells can respond to a meal in the normal way it seems they are either immune to attack or they are regenerating."
Dr Matthew Hobbs, head of research for Diabetes UK, added: "We know that preserving or restoring even relatively small levels of insulin secretion in type 1 diabetes can prevent hypoglycaemia [low glucose levels] and reduce complications, and therefore much research has focused on ways to make new cells that can be transplanted into the body."
"This research shows that some of a person's own beta cells remain, and therefore it may be possible to regenerate these cells in the future," Hobbs said. "It is also possible that understanding why some people keep insulin production while others lose it may help answer key questions about the biology of type 1 diabetes and help advance us toward a cure for the disease."
The Nemours Foundation has more about type 1 diabetes.