Studies from several other countries show that surgery also results in remission of diabetes for people who are not morbidly obese. There is even discussion, particularly in other countries, of performing weight-loss surgery for people with Type 2 diabetes who are not overweight.
In the United States, weight-loss surgery is still largely viewed as a cosmetic procedure and obesity as a lifestyle issue, not a chronic disease. Moreover, weight-loss surgery carries risks. The death rate is about one per 200 operations and severe complications can occur, including blood clots, infections related to surgery, and the need for corrective surgery due to leaks at the staple lines.
Other complications include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, dehydration, gallstones, kidney stones, hernia and low blood sugar.
However, a risk-benefit analysis published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. by Purnell and a colleague suggests that if the number of gastric bypass operations performed on diabetic patients increased to 1 million per year, as many as 14,310 diabetes-related deaths might be prevented over five years.
Surgery also leads to other health benefits besides weight loss and better control of diabetes. Patients often see improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, gastroesophageal reflux disease and sleep apnea.
"Doctors say, 'If I can lower glucose by medications, why send patients to surgery?' " Purnell says. "Surgery, however, allows people to have meaningful and sustained weight loss and their diabetes is better. There are risks involved with surgery, obviously, but it makes sense, to me, to do surgery."
The discovery of the gut hormones that play a role in appetite and insulin regulation may also lead to new medications for Type 2 diabetes, Pories says.
"You can't operate on 31 million Americans," he says. "But if we understood this mechanism and what are the molecules secreted by the intestines that cause diabetes, then we can cure it with a pill. I would not be surprised if, in the next five years, we have new medications."