Promising new research offers a cure for diabetes in the form of a vaccine which would ironically train the patient's own immune system to stop attacking and destroying the cells in the body that make insulin. The cause of Type 1 Diabetes can be traced to the immune system becoming confused and destroying the cells that normally make insulin in the body. The hormone insulin is needed to control blood sugar levels. People afflicted with Diabetes 1 have to take insulin by injection or tablets.
More recently implantable devices have been developed that track blood sugar levels, and insulin levels and release insulin into the body as needed. The new vaccine offers the first real chance of a cure.
Diabetes and the artificial maintenance of insulin levels in the body is associated with a range of health problems:
It is very hard to get the amount of insulin taken right, because it depends on the size and type or food eaten. Long-term complications of type 1 diabetes and insulin therapy occurring gradually and cumulatively, over many years. The poorer the control of blood sugar - the higher the risk of complications, and the more quickly they develop. In time diabetes complications may be life-threatening, for example through damage to the kidneys or may cause permanent disabilities. So clearly a better and more reliable remedy is needed for Type 1 Diabetes, rather than taking insulin, and a vaccine offers a real solution.
A study in 80 patients showed a newly developed Diabetes vaccine could be used in an unusual way. Normally vaccines are used to trigger the immune system to recognise a foreign disease organism such as a bacteria or virus and to attack it. Often the vaccine is a impaired version of the disease organism itself or a less harmful relative. Cow pox was used to develop a vaccine for small pox, for example. In this case a research team at the Stanford University used a vaccine with the opposite effect to make the body immune to the specific white blood cells erroneously shed to wrongly attack the beta cells in the pancreas that produce natural insulin.
The patients in the trail were given weekly injections of the vaccine for three months. When tested after the treatment the levels of the white blood cells programmed to attack the cells in the pancreas were much lower. There were signs of recovery of beta cell function in patients given the vaccine. Other parts of the immune system were left intact because the vaccine targeted specific white blood cells and not all of them. This vaccine is a totally new concept and new way of developing a vaccine. It offers hope that other auto-immune diseases may be treated in the same way.
The research is still in its infancy and more long term trials are needed to show its effectiveness. There were signs that the vaccine would need to be used at two month intervals.