Anyone who has type 1 diabetes knows what a demanding disease it is, requiring round-the-clock vigilance of diet, exercise and blood sugar levels. The disease occurs when your body destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
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But scientists are making discoveries that may prevent and even cure type 1 diabetes. Below are descriptions of two potential diabetes treatments.
A Wonder-Working Immune Protein
In a 2013 study at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Melbourne, Australian researchers found that an immune protein called CD52 can prevent and cure early stage type 1 diabetes in animals.
The discovery involves T-cells, key players in the immune system that, in type 1 diabetes, recognize proteins expressed by cells of the pancreas, explains Dr. Simi Ahmed, program scientist in the Immune Therapies Program at JDRF (formerly called the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) in New York City.
“We found that a subset of T cells suppressed other T cells and kept the growth of the T cell population in check,” says lead study author Len Harrison, a diabetes researcher and professor at the institute. “The suppressor T cells were characterized by a high expression of the CD52 molecule.”
The researchers also found that when they blocked CD52, the good T cells stopped acting as suppressors, says Harrison.
“If you look at the T cells of people who have type 1 diabetes, you see that that number of cells that express high levels of CD52 are fewer [than in a healthy population],” says Ahmed.
The next step, says Ahmed, is to find ways to increase the expression of CD52 on T cells. “Potentially, [increasing CD52] could work on any autoimmune disease that has a T cell component,” she says. An autoimmune disease, like type 1 diabetes, is characterized by the body’s attack on itself.
The measurement of CD52 expressing cells may also eventually be used to detect the presence of type 1 diabetes earlier than it can now be detected. Says Ahmed, “It may allow scientists to identify a patient population at greater risk for developing type 1 diabetes.” Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed currently through blood tests.
If human studies go well, the use of CD52 as a diabetes treatment may only be a few years away, says Harrison.
Page 2 of 2 - A New Drug called Ig-GAD2
In a 2013 study, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that combining cells similar to adult stem cells with a new drug called Ig-GAD2 may result in production of new insulin-producing beta cells.
“Ig-GAD2 acts to [lessen] the autoimmune attack on beta cells,” says Dr. Andrew Rakeman, senior scientist at JDRF. By lessening the attack, the beta cells begin to operate again.
To develop the drug, researchers combined Ig-GAD2 with progenitor cells—similar to adult stem cells--drawn from bone marrow in mice. To the researchers’ surprise, the progenitor cells turned into endothelial cells that line blood vessels, among other things. Those cells generated new blood vessels that provided the beta cells with the nourishment they needed to survive.
The drug was given for 10 weeks, and the bone marrow transplants were given intravenously on weeks 2, 3 and 4. The mice were cured of type 1 diabetes for 120 days, their lifespan.
Although it’s not yet clear if the diabetes treatment will work in humans, the results are promising, says Rakeman. “In principle, therapies that promote endothelial cell function and the formation of new blood vessels could be applied to many diseases.”
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