Our understanding of diabetes has taken some significant strides recently, but a new discovery has the potential to significantly improve the screening process by giving us a more complete picture of the disease. Working out the University of Lincoln in the UK, a team was able to identify the fifth and final molecule attacked by the immune system in Type 1 of the condition.

Type 1 diabetes arises when the pancreas loses its ability to produce insulin, which usually regulates blood sugar levels, transporting glucose from the blood into cells, where it's used as energy. The condition is caused by a fault in the patient's immune system, wherein the body's defenses actually destroy the cells in the pancreas that usually produce the precious insulin.

Specifically, the immune system targets molecules in the pancreas called autoantigens. People with Type 1 diabetes have certain antibodies in their blood that relate to specific molecules in the pancreas, which they hunt down and destroy. There are already tests available that check for these antibodies, with the more of them that are found indicating a stronger risk of developing diabetes.

The University of Lincoln researchers have been working to improve the accuracy of those tests. Before the study, we'd managed to identify four molecules that the immune system attacks in Type 1 diabetes, but in the new work, they were able to confirm the identity of a fifth molecule, previously known only as "Glima."

"We already had some knowledge about the physical properties of Glima, but its molecular identity has for many years proved elusive," said lead researcher Dr Michael Christie. "This has hampered the development of relevant autoantibody tests, but our research successfully identified Glima as the substance Tetraspanin-7."

With Tetraspanin-7 identified as the fifth molecule, future screening methods can include it, potentially making them significantly more accurate, while providing more information about the patient's specific immune response, which can help inform treatment choices.

Full details of the breakthrough are published online in the journal American Diabetes Association.