Can Covid-19 Coronavirus Cause Diabetes? Here Is What 2 New Studies Say

Add this to the growing list of reasons why you don’t want to get a Covid-19 coronavirus infection. Two new studies published in the journal Cell Metabolism show how the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) could possibly give you diabetes. Yes, diabetes.

One of these studies was from a research team led by Shuibing Chen, PhD, an Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at Weill Cornell Medicine. The other was from a research team led by Peter Jackson, PhD, a Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

These two new Cell Metabolism publications are the latest in the continuing “How the SARS-CoV-2 Can Meet Your Pancreas” saga. Kids (and adults), the story all began with a publication last July in the journal Cell Stem Cell that detailed how the Covid-19 coronavirus can infect pancreatic islet β (beta)-cells in a laboratory setting. So, if the virus could somehow make it to that spongy, cocktail shrimp-looking organ in your abdomen, it could get inside the β-cells.

By then, it had become increasingly clear that the Covid-19 coronavirus was a bit like a person who talks about genitals during a cocktail party, something that knew no real boundaries. There was more and more evidence that the virus could travel well beyond your respiratory tract and lungs. Then, a February 2021 publication in Nature Metabolism described how the virus can replicate in these β-cells and spread to other cells in the pancreas. In other words, the virus could treat your β-cells like a cheap motel and reproduce.

Of course, your pancreas may not be something that you think about it every day. It’s not a body part that you typically flex or refer to in your dating profiles. A person is not going to say, “well, that person’s personality is so-so, but his or her pancreas is fairly large.” Nevertheless, your pancreas is pretty darn important. One of its key roles is regulating your blood sugar levels.

Your pancreas includes clusters of cells called islets that contain α-(alpha)-cells, which secrete the hormone glucagon, and β-cells, which secrete the hormone insulin. Glucagon and insulin are the yin and the yang, the mustard and the ketchup, the Kanye West and Taylor Swift, of blood sugar control. Low blood sugar levels prompt the α-cells to release glucagon. Glucagon promotes the breakdown of glycogen in the liver to glucose, thus, raising blood sugar levels. On the other hand, high blood sugar levels stimulate the β-cells to release insulin. Insulin then helps glucose to move from the blood stream into different tissues in the body to be used as fuel. Keeping your blood sugar levels normal requires the proper balance of glucagon and insulin secretion at the appropriate times. The lack of insulin secretion can result in type 1 diabetes.

Now, Chen’s team has found pieces of the SARS-CoV-2 in pancreatic β-cells from the autopsies of people who died with Covid-19. These infected β-cells seemed to have been producing less insulin than normal. At the same time, the β-cells may have been producing glucagon and another protein called trypsin-1. This suggested that the beta cells had undergone trans-differentiation. Trans-differentiation is when a cell essentially changes in cell type and function.

Jackson’s team also found the SARS-CoV-2 in pancreatic β-cells from autopsies of patients with Covid-19. Additional experiments revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 selectively infected human islet β-cells in laboratory experiments.

So all of this suggests that SARS-CoV-2 infection of the pancreatic β-cells can lead to diabetes similar to type 1 diabetes. This Diabetes UK video describes what type 1 diabetes is:

Besides making your “wee” a lot, chronically high blood sugar levels can progressively damage different parts of your body. For example, damage to your heart and the blood vessels that provide blood to your heart can result in heart attacks and other cardiac damage. Damage to the tiny blood vessels that provide oxygen to your nerves can harm your nerves. Damage to your retina and blindness can occur too. Your kidney function can break down over time. Oh, and in case none of these other problems seem like big deals, blood vessel damage in your penis can lead to erectile dysfunction as well. Yes, erectile dysfunction. Do we have your attention yet?

It’s not clear how permanent these changes to the β-cells may be or what percentage of Covid-19 cases end up experiencing such changes. Much to learn we have about the Covid-19 coronavirus, as Yoda would say. Nevertheless, the possibility of diabetes is a further reminder that simply counting the number of Covid-19 deaths will greatly underestimate the impact and risk of the Covid-19 coronavirus. It’s also another good reason to get the Covid-19 vaccine or at least maintain Covid-19 precautions such as staying at least six feet or one Denzel (because Denzel Washington is about six feet tall) away from others. Who knows what else the virus may do your pancreas? After all, our knowledge is still just in the beta phase.


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