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Could a Short-Term Breathing Problem Contribute to Diabetes?

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Written by Adam Zewe

The National Institutes of Health estimates that, by the year 2030, 30 million Americans will suffer from diabetes. Preventing this disease from reaching epidemic proportions will require clinicians to rethink conventional diagnosis and treatment methods, according to Eung-Kwon Pae, DDS, PhD, MSc, chair of the Department of Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry. Pae recently published research that shows how a breathing problem that affects infants could contribute to the development of diabetes later in life.

Pae's paper, "Insulin Production Hampered by Intermittent Hypoxia via Impaired Zinc Homeostasis," was published in the February edition of the journal PLOS One. His research focuses on a condition known as intermittent hypoxia, which is a short-term breathing difficulty that some infants and pre-term babies experience right after birth. "As long as the baby survives that early period, doctors tend to disregard the breathing problem the baby had when he or she was born," says Pae.

His research shows that a few intermittent hypoxic events can affect the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The hypoxic breathing condition, even if it only lasts for a few minutes, can destroy molecular transporters (known as ZIP8 transporters) that allow the mineral zinc to be absorbed into these pancreatic cells. Without zinc, the cells are unable to produce insulin. If a patient's ZIP8 transporters have been destroyed, even if the patient is given zinc supplements, pancreatic cells will still be unable to produce insulin. "My challenge now is to find a way to boost a patient's ZIP8 level," remarks Pae.

Pae's research could also explain why more and more older adults are being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which is a condition that is typically diagnosed during childhood. "Once the damage is done to these ZIP8 transporters, that damage lasts for the patient's entire life. If a diabetic condition occurs, doctors must address it right away. The condition will only get worse as the child gets older," Pae states.

He plans to conduct additional studies to determine the mechanism that destroys ZIP8 transporters during intermittent hypoxia. Pae hopes this research could help clinicians repair the damage and, possibly, reverse a patient's diabetic condition.


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