A groundbreaking new study suggests that the body’s immune system can be taught to reverse the effects of type 1 diabetes.
The early-stage study, published this week in Science Translational Medicine, was conducted on 80 type 1 patients using the treatment TOL-3021.
This DNA vaccine is made up of a small round piece of DNA called a plasmid, which is genetically engineered to shut down only the immune system cells causing harm, while leaving the rest of the immune system intact.
In patients with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas, meaning they are unable to produce enough insulin.
The vaccine was targeted to the specific white blood cells which attack beta cells. The trial showed that after patients were given weekly injections for three months, the levels of those white blood cells fell.
The study and vaccine have been developed by teams from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands and Stanford University in California.
“The idea here is to turn off just the rogue immune cells that are attacking the pancreas and killing the beta cells that secrete insulin,” said Stanford Professor Dr Lawrence Steinman, one of the study’s senior authors and co-founder of firm Tolerion that was recently formed to commercialise the vaccine.
The vaccine also reduced the number of killer immune cells known as T cells. Patients who got the active vaccine had higher levels of C-peptides, suggesting the presence of more working beta cells.
Steinman told Reuters that the vaccine is far from commercial use, but the study is promising enough to do a bigger trial. “So far, it looks like it is doing what we want,” he said.
He added that ultimately, the hope is to develop an effective vaccine that could be given to individuals who are genetically predisposed to develop the condition.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 10% of the 350 million people in the world with diabetes have the type 1 variety - most have type 2, which is associated with obesity and lack of exercise, and is increasing exponentially year-on-year.