A vaccine for type 1 diabetes is being hailed as a significant step. Scientists say it may be possible to reverse type 1 diabetes by training a patient's own immune system to stop attacking their body, an early trial suggests.
Unlike type 2 diabetes, which can be caused by an unhealthy diet, type 1 diabetes is usually hereditary. Those who suffer from type 1 diabetes have an immune system that destroys the cells that make insulin, which is the hormone needed to control blood sugar levels.
A vaccine has proven that those who suffer from type 1 can retrain their immune system. This was proven in a study of 80 patients, published in the most recent journal of Science Translational Medicine.
Typically, a vaccine teaches the immune system to attack bacteria or viruses that cause disease, such as the polio virus. However, researchers at the Stanford University Medical Center used a vaccine with the opposite effect, i.e. to make the immune system cease its assault.
The immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas in type 1 diabetes, leaving the body to unable to produce enough insulin. Regular injections of insulin are needed throughout life.
The vaccine was targeted to the specific white blood cells which attack beta cells. After patients were given weekly injections for three months, the levels of those white blood cells fell.
In addition, blood tests suggest that beta cell function was better in patients given the vaccine than in those treated only with insulin. Other parts of the immune system seemed to be left intact.
"We're very excited by these results, which suggest that the immunologist's dream of shutting down just a single subset of dysfunctional immune cells without wrecking the whole immune system may be attainable," Professor Lawrence Steinman says.
"This vaccine is a new concept. It's shutting off a specific immune response."
Research remains at an early stage and trials in larger groups of people, which measure the long-term effect of the vaccine, are required.
Steinman said the effect seemed to last for up to two months so regular boosters would be needed.
"For the first time we have evidence that this particular type of vaccine has an effect in preserving insulin production in humans. This is a significant step forward on the journey towards a world without type 1 diabetes," Karen Addington, the U.K. chief executive of the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, says.
"We will build on this exciting DNA vaccine approach. Research into type 1 vaccines is a priority for JDRF's multimillion-pound global research program. But it is early days. Clinical use is still some time away."