Researchers say type 2 diabetes may actually be an autoimmune disease

A new study from a group of Stanford University researchers suggests that, similar to type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes may be an autoimmune disorder. The classification of the disease as such could drastically change the way that doctors and scientists think about it, which may lead to the development of different treatments and medications.

Type 1 diabetes is known as an autoimmune disorder because it has been shown that an individual's immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, making it impossible for the organ to keep up with the body's demand for the blood sugar-controlling hormone. However, in type 2 diabetes, the body's tissue becomes resistant to the effects of insulin.

While hypotheses have circulated as to the causes of this phenomenon, no scientist has been able to advance a complete theory to explain why tissue can become insulin resistant.

The Stanford University researchers speculated that B cells, which are components of the immune system, target and attack the fatty tissue that surrounds the body's organs. This, in turn, leads to inflammation. When inflamed fat cells continue to expand, they die, and the immune system must continue to respond to the material left behind by dead fat cells. This process can take a toll on tissue.

To test their theory, the researchers genetically engineered laboratory mice to lack B cells. The team reported in the journal Nature Medicine that when these animals were fed a high-fat diet, they became obese, but they did not show any signs of compromised metabolic function.

"We are in the process of redefining one of the most common diseases in America as an autoimmune disease, rather than a purely metabolic disease," said Daniel Winer, MD, lead researcher of the Stanford University study, adding that this could change the direction of future treatments for type 2 diabetes.