By Erin Hicks
The flu virus may do more than just make you sick with the flu, say Italian researchers. It could also trigger diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes, affects as many as 3 million Americans, most of them diagnosed as children. Type 1 diabetes develops when the body's immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells found in the pancreas. The condition is genetic, but an environmental trigger is also necessary for it to appear.
Researchers have suspected the flu virus might provide this trigger since the 1970s, because type 1 diabetes often sets in after an infection.
Study author Ilaria Capua and her team from the World Organization for Animal Health infected turkeys with the flu to test their theory that it could trigger diabetes. They conducted the study on turkeys because they knew birds with the flu often have an inflamed pancreas, according to New Scientist. They found that many of the turkeys infected with flu virus developed severe pancreatic damage, as well as diabetes.
The researchers then infected human pancreatic tissue with two common flu viruses and found that both viruses grew well in the tissue. The flu virus in the pancreatic cells triggered production of inflammatory chemicals that are central to the autoimmune reactions that lead to type 1 diabetes.
Normally, in humans, the virus attacks the lungs and gut, but not typically the pancreas. But it can sometimes get into the blood and travel to the pancreas, researchers said.
Capua is now testing the diabetes-producing effects of the flu on mice, according to the New Scientist.
"Our findings indicate that influenza infection may play a role as a causative agent of pancreatitis and diabetes in humans and other mammals," the study authors concluded in their report.
Their study was published in the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Virology.