Beta cells in the pancreas produce the insulin our body needs to properly regulate blood sugar. Diabetes results when there is a problem with this system; the body may stop responding to insulin, or beta cells stop might producing it, for example. Type 1 diabetes is sometimes thought of as an autoimmune condition because the body may attack and destroy beta cells. Genetic factors influence most cases of type 1 diabetes. Genome-wide association studies have enabled researchers to identify genetic variants and mutations associated with the development of type 1 diabetes, and how big of an effect each may have.
There are about 67 variants in the human genome that are known to be associated with the development of type 1 diabetes; people that carry one or more of these variations in their DNA sequence are more likely to get the disorder. These 67 variants are able to identify about 90 percent of type 1 diabetes cases when a person's genome is sequenced. More research is needed, however, to understand exactly how these variants increase the risk of the disease.
Researchers have now made an unexpected finding when using machine learning to rank the influence of genetic mutations that happen in various tissues on diabetes development; they determined that lung infections could be a trigger for type 1 diabetes. The computational research, which utilized vast amounts of medical and genetic data in the UK Biobank, has been reported in Communications Biology.
While the pancreas has been a focus of diabetes research, study leader Professor Justin O'Sullivan said that "what's really striking is that the mutations that are linked to the biggest risk of developing the disease affect genes in another tissue entirely - in the lung."
This research may help scientists create treatments that could stave off the onset of diabetes in some people.
"It's really a tantalizing piece of information. This looks like a very important connection. Could we someday see a vaccine that protects some people against developing type-1 diabetes? That would be amazing," added O'Sullivan, a researcher at The Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland.
Some previous research has also suggested that COVID-19 may cause diabetes.