For decades, doctors and researchers have believed type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder. This type of disorder occurs when your body’s natural chemical processes don’t work properly.

New research suggests type 2 diabetes may actually be an autoimmune disease. If that’s the case, new treatments and preventive measures may be developed to treat this condition.

Currently, there isn’t enough evidence to fully support this idea. For now, doctors will continue to prevent and treat type 2 diabetes with diet, lifestyle changes, medications, and injected insulin.

Read on to learn more about the research that’s being done and the implications it may have on the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes has historically been viewed as a different type of disease from type 1 diabetes, despite their similar name. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body becomes resistant to insulin or can’t produce enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that moves glucose from your blood to your cells. Your cells convert glucose to energy.

Without insulin, your cells can’t use glucose, and symptoms of diabetes can occur. These symptoms may include fatigue, increased hunger, increased thirst, and blurred vision.

Type 1 diabetes, sometimes called juvenile diabetes because it’s often diagnosed in children and teens, is an autoimmune disease.

In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy tissues of the body and destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. The damage from these attacks prevents the pancreas from supplying insulin to the body.

Without an adequate supply of insulin, cells can’t get the energy they need. Blood sugar levels rise, leading to symptoms such as frequent urination, increased thirst, and irritability.

Early research suggests the two types of diabetes may have more in common than previously believed. In the last decade, researchers have tested the idea that type 2 diabetes is a type of autoimmune disease, similar to type 1 diabetes.

Some studies have found evidence that insulin resistance may be the result of immune system cells attacking the body’s tissues. These cells are designed to produce the antibodies that fight invading bacteria, germs, and viruses. In people with type 2 diabetes, these cells may mistakenly attack healthy tissue.

If type 2 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, the discovery may have big implications on our understanding of obesity. It will also affect the way obesity-induced type 2 diabetes is treated.

Doctors currently treat type 2 diabetes with two traditional approaches.

The first focuses on a healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet and frequent exercise are the pillars of this treatment.

Doctors then typically prescribe oral medications that work in different ways to increase your body’s ability to use insulin, to make less glucose, as well as other actions.

If medications don’t work, you may need to use insulin. Injections of insulin can help your cells absorb glucose and generate energy. Some people with diabetes may be able to postpone insulin injections with healthy lifestyle changes and medications. Others may need them right away.

If type 2 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, that could change the treatment strategy. Instead of exercise and insulin, doctors might consider immunosuppressant medications.

One such medicine is called anti-CD20 or rituximab (Rituxan, MabThera). This medicine is designed to target and eliminate the immunity cells that are attacking healthy tissue.

In one study, anti-CD20 successfully prevented lab mice at high risk for type 2 diabetes from developing the disorder. The treatment even restored their blood sugar levels to normal.

Immunosuppressant medications like anti CD-20 could prevent immune system cells, like B cells, from attacking healthy tissue.

Currently, anti-CD20 is used to treat some autoimmune diseases. Using immunosuppressant medications to treat type 2 diabetes is a long way off, but the early results are promising.

This news is a big advance in medicine and in the understanding of diabetes. Greater understanding of what might be causing this disease is necessary to provide the best and most effective treatments.

If the understanding of type 2 diabetes changes, this may have major implications. New research could confirm the disease is indeed an autoimmune disease. Then treatment and prevention will turn to novel therapies and medicines that we may not have yet. This research opens the door to wider discussions about why and how diabetes develops, and what can be done to stop it.

More research is needed before type 2 diabetes is considered an autoimmune disease. Until that time, talk with your doctor about the future of this research. It’s good to have an ongoing conversation with your doctor about the most recent diabetes research.

Continue to test your blood sugar levels regularly, pump or inject insulin to maintain a “normal” range of blood sugar levels, and keep your body healthy.