Type 1 diabetes is caused by a lack of insulin due to the [autoimmune] destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. In type 1 diabetes-an autoimmune disease-the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells. Normally, the immune system protects the body from infection by identifying and destroying bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful foreign substances. But in autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the body’s own cells. In type 1 diabetes, beta cell destruction may take place over several years, but symptoms of the disease usually develop over a short period of time.
Type 1 diabetes typically occurs in children and young adults, though it can appear at any age. In the past, type 1 diabetes was called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.
Latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA) may be a slowly developing kind of type 1 diabetes. Diagnosis usually occurs after age 30. In LADA, as in type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system destroys the beta cells. At the time of diagnosis, people with LADA may still produce their own insulin, but eventually most will need insulin shots or an insulin pump to control blood glucose levels.
Heredity plays an important part in determining who is likely to develop type 1 diabetes. Genes are passed down from biological parent to child. Genes carry instructions for making proteins that are needed for the body’s cells to function. Many genes, as well as interactions among genes, are thought to influence susceptibility to and protection from type 1 diabetes. The key genes may vary in different population groups. Variations in genes that affect more than 1 percent of a population group are called gene variants.
Certain gene variants that carry instructions for making proteins called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) on white blood cells are linked to the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. The proteins produced by HLA genes help determine whether the immune system recognizes a cell as part of the body or as foreign material. Some combinations of HLA gene variants predict that a person will be at higher risk for type 1 diabetes, while other combinations are protective or have no effect on risk.
While HLA genes are the major risk genes for type 1 diabetes, many additional risk genes or gene regions have been found. Not only can these genes help identify people at risk for type 1 diabetes, but they also provide important clues to help scientists better understand how the disease develops and identify potential targets for therapy and prevention.
Genetic testing can show what types of HLA genes a person carries and can reveal other genes linked to diabetes. However, most genetic testing is done in a research setting and is not yet available to individuals. Scientists are studying how the results of genetic testing can be used to improve type 1 diabetes prevention or treatment.
Autoimmune Destruction of Beta Cells
In type 1 diabetes, white blood cells called T cells attack and destroy beta cells. The process begins well before diabetes symptoms appear and continues after diagnosis. Often, type 1 diabetes is not diagnosed until most beta cells have already been destroyed. At this point, a person needs daily insulin treatment to survive. Finding ways to modify or stop this autoimmune process and preserve beta cell function is a major focus of current scientific research.
Recent research suggests insulin itself may be a key trigger of the immune attack on beta cells. The immune systems of people who are susceptible to developing type 1 diabetes respond to insulin as if it were a foreign substance, or antigen. To combat antigens, the body makes proteins called antibodies. Antibodies to insulin and other proteins produced by beta cells are found in people with type 1 diabetes. Researchers test for these antibodies to help identify people at increased risk of developing the disease. Testing the types and levels of antibodies in the blood can help determine whether a person has type 1 diabetes, LADA, or another type of diabetes.
Environmental factors, such as foods, viruses, and toxins, may play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes, but the exact nature of their role has not been determined. Some theories suggest that environmental factors trigger the autoimmune destruction of beta cells in people with a genetic susceptibility to diabetes. Other theories suggest that environmental factors play an ongoing role in diabetes, even after diagnosis.
Viruses and infections. A virus cannot cause diabetes on its own, but people are sometimes diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during or after a viral infection, suggesting a link between the two. Also, the onset of type 1 diabetes occurs more frequently during the winter when viral infections are more common. Viruses possibly associated with type 1 diabetes include coxsackievirus B, cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, rubella, and mumps. Scientists have described several ways these viruses may damage or destroy beta cells or possibly trigger an autoimmune response in susceptible people. For example, anti-islet antibodies have been found in patients with congenital rubella syndrome, and cytomegalovirus has been associated with significant beta cell damage and acute pancreatitis--inflammation of the pancreas. Scientists are trying to identify a virus that can cause type 1 diabetes so that a vaccine might be developed to prevent the disease.
Infant feeding practices. Some studies have suggested that dietary factors may raise or lower the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. For example, breastfed infants and infants receiving vitamin D supplements may have a reduced risk of developing type 1 diabetes, while early exposure to cow’s milk and cereal proteins may increase risk. More research is needed to clarify how infant nutrition affects the risk for type 1 diabetes.
See the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse’s (NDIC’s) fact sheet Diabetes Overview
for information about research studies related to type 1 diabetes.