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Diabetes Mellitus Type 1

The fifty trillion cells in your body depend upon one food for survival -- glucose -- and the concentration of this rocket fuel must be tightly maintained to keep things running efficiently. Too low, and your metabolism slams to a stop, causing loss of consciousness, seizures and brain damage. Too high, and you risk infection and dehydration as your kidneys struggle to absorb water from urine that is sweeter than Kool-Aid. (Hence the word "Mellitus" -- Latin for "honey sweet.") Doctors noticed early that the urine of diabetics attracted ants and tasted sugary. Medical progress today gives us pretty much the same information by stabbing a needle in your arm, paying a couple hundred bucks for a stranger in a medical laboratory to squirt your blood sample into a huge machine, and then finding an endocrinologist to read the result off a slip of paper.

As important as blood sugar is, you will be surprised to hear that the level is mostly dependent upon a single hormone -- insulin, manufactured deep inside your pancreas by a million tiny organs called the Islets of Langerhans that all together weigh less than a penny. This less-than-intelligent design means that your life could take a sudden swerve for the worse if a brief infection from the Coxsackie B virus (or similar insult) wipes out your islet cells, forcing you to depend for the rest of your life on hourly insulin injections. (Since the hormone is easily destroyed in your digestive tract, insulin pills don't exist.)

Type I or juvenile-onset diabetics live a tight-rope existence, balanced between brain-cell-destroying hypoglycemia (too low), diabetic ketoacidosis (too high) or even hyperosmolar coma (way way too too too high) -- and endure a list of hellish complications that range from blocked arteries, heart attacks, kidney failure, gangrene of the legs, stroke, blindness, chronic pain and even worse afflictions that might have originated in the feverish brain of Hironimous Bauch. Since Type 1 diabetes can strike anybody -- including children -- nobody is safe from this incurable disease. However, doctors dream of one day offering and instant cure to Planet Earth's suffering 20 million Type I diabetics by transplanting a tiny button of functioning islet cells. It is a goal that still remains tantalizingly out of reach -- 70 years after the first kidney transplant.

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