Researchers Target Immune System for Potential Type 1 Diabetes Treatment

Islet transplantation requires immunosuppressive drugs be taken for the rest of a person's life, though improving the body's ability to manage glucose levels significantly lowers the risk for adverse health events. islet transportation Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

The immune system plays an important role in type 1 diabetes; after all, it is the immune system that destroys insulin-producing cells. When cells are damaged or destroyed, it decreases the body’s ability to convert sugar to energy and produce insulin. Instead, individuals must monitor and adjust their insulin on their own through injections or an insulin pump.

In a small study, researchers examined the possibility of retraining the body’s immune system to not attack insulin-producing cells. They did this through the use of peptide immunotherapy. According to Simi Ahmed, senior scientist at JDRF, “The immunotherapy re-educates the immune system and teaches the cells that they shouldn’t attack the beta cells.”

This is done by injecting disease-related antigens to stimulate regulatory T-cells development and/or make them work better.  However, scientists have not yet determined exactly which antigens are responsible for type 1 diabetes. This is an area where more research is needed.

The study divided up 27 participants into three groups.  All participants had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes within 100 days, because scientists wanted to test the immunotherapy before all or most of the T-cells had been destroyed, which is common in individuals who have had diabetes for many years.

One group received a placebo drug, one group received immunotherapy every four weeks, and one group received immunotherapy every two weeks. The results showed that the control group had decreased C-peptide levels at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months, but those who received immunotherapy every four weeks had no decline in C-peptide levels. The group that received immunotherapy every two weeks showed a decline in C-peptide levels at 12 months.  When C-peptide levels decrease, it means that less insulin is being produced.

While the test group was too small to determine why these variations occurred, it does show that there is potential in this therapy and more extensive testing is needed with a larger group.  There were no noted side effects, meaning immunotherapy appears to be safe for individuals with type 1 diabetes.

Further research is needed to determine how often immunotherapy would be needed and whether individuals who have had the disease for many years could potentially benefit. Studies have shown that some people who have had diabetes long-term still have detectable C-peptide levels.

This study opens the door for many new trials and areas of research. Immunotherapy is an approach that may hold great potential upon initial diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. The Diabetes Research Connection supports this type of innovative research and funds studies that are often deemed high-risk. Learn more about the projects backed by the Diabetes Research Connection by visiting us online and consider donating to the cause.

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