Researchers confirm: the coronavirus can cause diabetes

Updated: 06/10/2021 – 4:56 pm

Coronavirus infects pancreas
Covid-19 can trigger diabetes – researchers now also know how

Foto: Getty Images / sanjeri

Suddenly, blood sugar has to be measured regularly: Diabetes can be triggered by Covid-19.

Every seventh hospital patient with Covid-19 shows signs of diabetes – although the metabolic disease had not occurred before. Researchers now know why this happens and how the affected cells can even be protected. However, one thing is still unclear: whether those affected will recover completely.

Covid-19 has long been associated with diabetes. Not only are diabetes patients more often affected by severe courses of the viral disease. It was also noticeable that hospitalized patients in particular suddenly developed diabetes, although they had no sugar problems beforehand. Researchers have now been able to confirm the suspicion: Covid-19 can cause diabetes. This happens because Sars-CoV-2 directly attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.


Pancreas infected: This is how the coronavirus triggers diabetes


Covid-19 is not just a respiratory disease: The Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus has long since attacked not only the airways, but a large number of organs, and it can spread to the tissue in large parts of the body. In addition to the lungs, the intestines, kidneys, blood vessels, but also the brain and nerves are affected.


In the lungs and other areas, such as the heart, it primarily uses the ACE2 receptors. The proteins are considered to be the main entry point for the virus. However, there is hardly any ACE2 in the pancreas, which is responsible for producing insulin in the body. So far, it has been unclear why patients with Covid-19 show more signs of type 1 diabetes – a type of diabetes that usually occurs at a young age and is triggered by an autoimmune reaction of the body.

Coronavirus attacks beta cells in a different way


In an international study, including with the Universities of Stanford and Basel, researchers have now been able to show that Sars-CoV-2 in the pancreas can take a different route to infect cells – directly the insulin-producing beta cells .

Instead of ACE2, they contain another protein: Neuropilin 1 (NRP1). And this is exactly what serves as the entry gate for the virus. In other words: The coronavirus directly attacks the beta cells, which are then damaged and stop producing insulin or at least producing less of it – as is the case with type 1 diabetes. But insulin is important for absorbing and converting sugar from our blood. If this does not happen, our blood will become too sugary, to put it simply.


How does diabetes actually develop? You can read more about diabetes mellitus as well as its types, symptoms, causes and therapy with us.


Diabetes is a direct consequence of Covid-19 – which could be avoided in the future


Using beta cells cultivated in the laboratory, the scientists were able to find out that Sars-CoV-2 could primarily infect these cells, use them as virus factories and then let them die. Correspondingly, these cells then also stopped the production of insulin. On the basis of these results, the researchers were able to test on laboratory beta cells whether an NRP1 inhibitor could prevent the coronavirus from penetrating the cells – with success.


So far, this has only been successful in the laboratory, but it may be possible in the future to provide a certain protection for patients with severe Covid-19. A glimmer of hope. Because every seventh hospitalized Covid-19 patient shows signs of diabetes. And it is not yet clear whether the disease will actually lead to the development of the autoimmune disease or whether it is only a temporary phenomenon. In a communication from the University of Basel, the pathologist Dr. Matthias Matter: “Whether the sugar metabolism will normalize again in all Covid-19 patients after an infection has been overcome and whether and how often persistent diabetes can develop cannot be said with certainty based on the current study situation.”


In Long Covid patients, for example, there are indications of diabetes weeks to months after the infection. Therefore, it makes sense to develop a way to prevent permanent damage to the pancreas. And this is exactly why the findings should be important.


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