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Open access

D Cappellani, C Sardella, M C Campopiano, A Falorni, P Marchetti and E Macchia

Summary

Insulin autoimmune syndrome (IAS), or Hirata disease, is a rare hypoglycaemic disorder caused by the presence of high titer of insulin autoantibodies (IAA) in patients without previous exposure to exogenous insulin. Even though its pathogenesis is not fully understood, striking evidences link IAS to previous exposure to sulphydryl-containing medications, like alpha-lipoic acid, a widely used nutritional supplement. Although challenging, a careful differential diagnosis from other causes of hyperinsulinaemic hypoglycaemia (such as insulinoma) is mandatory, since these conditions require different therapeutic approaches. In the present study, we report a 35-year-old woman originally from Sri Lanka who was referred to our University Hospital on suspicion of occult insulinoma. Her medical history was positive for endometriosis, treated with estroprogestins and alpha-lipoic acid. The latter supplement was begun 2 weeks before the first hypoglycaemic episode. Our tests confirmed the presence of hypoglycaemia associated with high insulin and C-peptide concentrations. When insulin concentrations were compared using different assays, the results were significantly different. Moreover, insulin values significantly decreased after precipitation with polyethylene glycol. An assay for IAA proved positive (530 U/mL). A genetic analysis revealed the presence of HLA-DRB1*04,15, an immunogenetic determinant associated with IAS. On the basis of clinical data we avoided a first-line approach with immunosuppressive treatments, and the patient was advised to modify her diet, with the introduction of frequent low-caloric meals. During follow-up evaluations, glucose levels (registered trough a flash glucose monitoring system) resulted progressively more stable. IAA titer progressively decreased, being undetectable by the fifteenth month, thus indicating the remission of the IAS.

Learning points:

  • Insulin autoimmune syndrome (IAS) is a rare cause of hyperinsulinaemic hypoglycaemia, whose prevalence is higher in East Asian populations due to the higher prevalence of specific immunogenetic determinants. Nevertheless, an increasing number of IAS cases is being reported worldwide, due to the wide diffusion of medications such as alpha-lipoic acid.

  • Differential diagnosis of IAS from other causes of hyperinsulinemic hypoglycaemia is challenging. Even though many tests can be suggestive of IAS, the gold standard remains the detection of IAAs, despite that dedicated commercial kits are not widely available.

  • The therapeutic approach to IAS is problematic. As a matter of fact IAS is often a self-remitting disease, but sometimes needs aggressive immunosuppression. The benefits and risks of any therapeutic choice should be carefully weighted and tailored on the single patient.