Every 19 seconds, someone is diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), adding to the 30 million adults and children already living with the disease.

November is American Diabetes Month, and the high numbers of people living with the disease, in addition to the significant health complications it can cause, make diabetes an active area of research.

Scientists are busily investigating the biology of the disease, causes, and potential treatments, both pharmacological and all natural. To highlight American Diabetes Month, we’ve collected a roundup of the latest news and research.

1. Diet sodas may increase diabetes risk

The dangers of full-flavor soft drinks for diabetics have long been known, but the ADA’s official stance has always been that diet sodas do not present the same risk because they do not contain sugar.

New research from the journal Nature shows that artificial sweeteners like aspartame do pose health risks because they interfere with gut bacteria and consequently make it more difficult for the body to process sugar.

The body doesn’t directly digest fake sugar, and so aspartame and similar sweeteners encounter gut bacteria head-on, frequently resulting in a microbial imbalance known as dysbiosis and metabolic syndrome, which is a warning sign for diabetes.

Non-caloric artificial sweeteners are widespread, not only in sodas, but also in low- or no-calorie desserts or other “light” products. Researchers said the study highlights the need to conduct more in-depth research about the health effects of these artificial sweeteners, noting they’re presumed to be safe although little research has been conducted.

2. Artificial pancreas for diabetes patients on horizon

For Type 1 diabetes patients, their body’s inability to regulate blood sugar levels means a life of blood testing and insulin injections. But an artificial pancreas has the potential to change all of that.

Researchers from the American Chemical Society are developing an artificial pancreas that can be implanted into patients’ bodies, measure blood sugar levels, and automatically release insulin. These types of devices have been available for several years, but ACS researchers have developed a special algorithm that makes the process faster and better for patients.

Although the research is moving forward only for patients with Type 1 diabetes, which is typically diagnosed in children and young people, the advances in medicine could also one day benefit patients with Type 2 diabetes.

3. Zebrafish embryos contribute to development of diabetes drugs

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have begun using zebrafish embryos to identify effective diabetes drugs with great success. Already scientists have used the zebrafish to identify 24 medications that could be used to help restore pancreas functioning by creating more insulin-producing cells. Study author Dr. Jeffrey Mumm says:

“More studies need to be done, but we think there’s potentially no limit on the diseases this screening technique could be applied to other than the human imagination.”

Zebrafish make especially good research participants because they’re transparent, allowing scientists to easily see the results of experiments they’re conducting. The fish also share a great number of human genes.

Researchers say they’re excited about the process, which they believe will help speed new drug discoveries for other medical ailments.

4. Meditation proves beneficial for people with diabetes

Meditation and mindfulness, defined as an elevated, non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer states, has been discovered helpful for diabetes patients who need help fostering a greater sense of self-determination, according to research published in the journal Behavioral Medicine.

Learning meditation techniques helped research participants accept their limitations so they could in turn identify the possibilities that remained. Patients who meditated also experienced improved sleep, a greater feeling of relaxation, and an improved ability to accept illness.

In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, many patients experienced improved health. Some people reported lower blood sugar after the six-week course, and one participant noted the practice helped reduce chest pain.

5. Improvements in injectable insulin give hope to diabetes patients

Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a type of modified insulin that stays active in the bloodstream for ten hours. It also has the ability to respond to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Currently, diabetes patients must track blood sugar levels and take insulin multiple times each day. Study author Dr. Daniel Anderson says:

“The real challenge is getting the right amount of insulin available when you need it, because if you have too little insulin your blood sugar goes up, and if you have too much, it can go dangerously low.”

To alleviate the problem, MIT researchers created a type of insulin that is only activated by excessively high levels of blood sugar, making it smart insulin that reduces the need for constant vigilance. The idea is still in the conceptual phases, but researchers hope to continue studying the possibilities and one day get this type of insulin into the hands of patients.

6. Commonly used chemicals may increase diabetes risk

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as bisphenol A (BPA) are commonly found in packaging and personal care products. Some researchers have sounded concern that these chemicals increase the risk of cancer, but a review of studies from the Endocrine Society highlights concerns for an increased risk of diabetes, too.

The chemicals are dangerous to humans because they interfere with the body’s natural production of hormones, including insulin. Pharmacology professor Andrea C. Gore says:

“The evidence is more definitive than ever before—EDCs disrupt hormones in a manner that harms human health…Hundreds of studies are pointing to the same conclusion, whether they are long-term epidemiological studies in humans, basic research in animals and cells, or research into groups of people with known occupational exposure to specific chemicals.”

Animal studies have found that select EDCs interfere with the pancreas, which can result in insulin resistance or excessive insulin, which are both risk factors in Type 2 diabetes. Scientists called for additional research and stricter regulations for these potentially harmful chemicals.

Which study do you find most interesting?

Image by Oskar Annermarken via Flickr

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