Some COVID-19 patients are developing diabetes symptoms after infection, causing scientists to ask if the virus could trigger the chronic disease.
Early findings of Coronavirus-related complications suggest that COVID-19 infections could be causing the pancreas to self-destruct by harming some vital cells.
The relationship between the coronavirus and diabetes is not well-established or understood, but scientists are pursuing research to discover any links.
“Clearly there’s a link, there’s some sort of mechanism that makes the disease fuel one another,” Francesco Rubino, chair of metabolic surgery at king’s College London, told online news media outlet, Insider.
“The question is whether new-onset diabetes could be caused by this virus,” he added.
Diabetes is a disease that occurs when blood sugar is too high. Blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, is the body’s main source of energy and comes from food. Insulin, the hormone made by the pancreas, helps the glucose feed the body’s cells.
One theory, suggested by a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, was that the body could be confusing pancreas cells for COVID-19 and trying to fight and destroy them. This would then lead to a disruption in the body’s insulin supply, causing diabetes, according to the scientists involved.
Another theory is that the virus might be altering the pancreas, causing it to self-destruct.
“This is a real thing,” the microbiologist Peter Jackson told National Geographic, adding that the available data suggested that as many as 100,000 people were diagnosed with an unexpected case of diabetes in 2020 alone.
“This could be a pandemic in a pandemic,” endocrinology professor at the University of Milan and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, Paolo Fiorina, told National Geographic.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled ‘New-Onset Diabetes in COVID-19’ suggested that a hallmark of diabetes seen after a coronavirus infection was extremely high levels of blood sugar produced in the body.
To handle the large amounts of glucose the body needs to produce large doses of insulin to control the levels, researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Department of Surgery, Shiubing Chen told Insider.
“This suggests there may be some acute damage of the pancreas,” Chen said.
The research team, which Chen was a part of, studied autopsy samples from five donors who previously contracted COVID-19 infections. As part of the research, they also gave the coronavirus to cells taken from healthy human pancreases in the laboratory.
Their findings published in Cell Metabolism in August, suggested that after infection, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas started to act a little differently.
They produced much less insulin, making instead glucagon - the chemical that instigates the opposite effect. They also began to produce trypsin, a digestive enzyme, and chemokines, a type of substance that tells the body’s immune system when cells are sick and must be destroyed.
Whether the effects of COVID-19 infection are severe enough to cause diabetes to develop in people who had no prior signs is something researchers “don’t know yet,” Chen concluded.