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Doctors embrace bariatric surgery as effective treatment for diabetes

November 24, 2009 |  4:28 pm

Fifty international scientific and medical experts have issued a "consensus statement" declaring that bariatric surgery should be considered a treatment option for patients with Type 2 diabetes, even if they are not extremely obese.

The new guidelines, published today online in the Annals of Surgery, urge surgeons performing bariatric surgery and healthcare insurers reimbursing for such treatment to relax criteria, adopted in 1991, that have restricted such surgery to patients with a body-mass index of 35 or more.

Reviewing more than a decade's worth of studies on weight-loss surgery and diabetes, clinicians and researchers backing the document have concluded that the improved metabolic function that is typical in diabetic patients who undergo bariatric surgery is not merely an incidental effect of weight loss. "Surgery is a specific treatment for diabetes...the effect on diabetes is a direct consequence of the new anatomy created by surgery," said lead author Dr. Francesco Rubino, director of the gastrointestinal metabolic surgery program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College.

The implications, added Rubino in an interview, "are enormous." For starters, that finding should drive a broadening of the patient population offered the option of gastric bypass surgery or less invasive procedures that reduce the capacity of the gastrointestinal tract. Rubino said that patients with Type 2 diabetes that is poorly managed by diet, exercise and medicine should now routinely be assessed as surgery candidates.

Some of those will likely be far less overweight than the bulk of patients who have had the surgery for weight loss. Rubino cited the example of diabetic patients of Asian descent, who rarely reach a BMI of 35 but who might benefit from bariatric surgery.

For the more than 20 million Americans -- and counting -- thought to have Type 2 diabetes, bariatric surgery may offer more than just another treatment option. Research shows that for many patients, diabetes abates dramatically and permanently with surgery. That, said Rubino, makes the possibility of a "cure"--a prospect not discussed until very recently--real for many patients who have been told that "living with diabetes" is the best they can do.

Beyond that, said Rubino, clinicians caring for these patients will need to optimize their pre- and post-operative care to serve a new objective: that of improving metabolic function. Currently, many bariatric surgery patients continue on diabetes medicines after their operation when that might not be optimal or even necessary.

Finally, the consensus finding should guide the search for drugs that can better treat Type 2 diabetes. Those should focus on how metabolic function is changed by an alteration of the gut's anatomy, and whether drugs could be developed or adapted to work in the same way, Rubino said.

-- Melissa Healy

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