Coronavirus could cause diabetes, new study finds

The virus attacks beta cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin. Damaging these cells and interrupting this process leads to type-1 diabetes.

A blood glucose test is done to check sugar levels in a Type 2 Diabetes patient (photo credit: DARRYL LEJA/NIH/FLICKR)
A blood glucose test is done to check sugar levels in a Type 2 Diabetes patient
(photo credit: DARRYL LEJA/NIH/FLICKR)
The coronavirus could potentially lead to severe damage to insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, leading to diabetes, according to a new study, Medicalxpress reported Wednesday.
While coronavirus – also known as SARS-CoV-2, which is what triggers COVID-19 – has long been known to have an effect on the lungs and respiratory tract, there is mounting evidence that  it can also damage various other organs throughout the body.
Its ability to penetrate pancreas beta cells, however, has now been observed by scientists for the first time.
Published in the academic journal Nature Metabolism, the study, led by Dr. Tim Hollstein and Prof. Matthias Laudes of Kiel University in Germany, depicts how insulin deficiency diabetes, also known as type-1 diabetes, can develop in COVID-19 patients, based on an observed case.
"A 19-year-old patient came to us in the clinic with newly-developed severe diabetes with insulin deficiency. It could be shown that he apparently had experienced a SARS-CoV-2 infection a few weeks before," Laudes explained, according to Medicalxpress.
"Such an insulin deficiency diabetes, i.e. type 1 diabetes, is usually triggered by an autoimmune response, in which the immune system incorrectly identifies the beta cells in the pancreas as foreign and attacks them. But this autoimmune response was not present in this patient. We assume that here, the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself attacked the beta cells."
The reason this is possible is due to the virus's ability to bind with the ACE2 receptor, a crucial receptor found in beta cells. From there, the virus can use the receptor as an entry point of sorts into the body, allowing it to attack other cells.
"This newly-discovered metabolic disease demonstrates how important a detailed clinical and laboratory chemical characterization of COVID-19 can be for patients at a university endocrinological center," Laudes added, according to Medicalxpress.
Following the study's success, a long-term follow-up study will be conducted by the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (which is part of both the University of Kiel and the University of Lübeck) under the leadership of Prof. Stefan Schreiber. The study, which will operate under the name COVIDOM, is open to all COVID-19 patients in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
At the time of writing, Schleswig-Holstein has recorded a total of 4,061 coronavirus cases, but only 208 are active, according to Johns Hopkins University.
"This success of Prof. Laudes and his team underlines the importance of accurate follow-up observation after COVID-19," Schreiber explained, according to Medicalxpress.
"We are certain that as a result of this disease, even more health-relevant metabolic problems can arise."
It should also be noted that while the coronavirus may cause diabetes, it can also pose an additional risk to patients who were already diabetic. This is because of the increased risk of serious illnesses in triggering diabetic ketoacidosis, a type of blood poisoning that can lead to patients falling into a coma or even death.
While the reaction itself is fairly rare, doctors have linked it to certain drugs known as SGLT2 inhibitors, diabetic treatment medication that helps control blood glucose levels by increasing how much sugar is excreted in urine. As such, COVID-19 patients taking SGLT2 inhibitors run the risk of experiencing ketoacidosis, prompting many health officials to discourage patients from continuing to take the drug while sick with the coronavirus.
Despite this, one such SGLT2 inhibitor, Dapagliflozin, also known as the brand name Farxiga, was the subject of a test by AstraZeneca, to see if it could serve as a potential treatment for COVID-19, due to its ability to help treat heart and kidney problems.
Reuters contributed to this report.