The damaged immune systems of diabetics can be retrained to stop them destroying insulin, scientists believe, following successful trials of a pioneering new therapy.
Researchers at King’s College London and Cardiff University showed that injecting patients with tiny protein fragments prevented immune cells from targeting vital insulin.
Type 1 diabetes develops when a patient's immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas.
Without treatment the number of beta cells will slowly decrease and the body will no longer be able to maintain normal blood sugar (blood glucose) levels, leading to patients needing daily injections.
But a trial involving 27 people showed it was possible to halt the loss of beta cells with fortnightly or monthly injections for six months. There were also no toxic side-effects.
A placebo group who were not given the new treatment declined over the same period, while the trial patients all remained stable. The team is now planning larger trials.
Professor Mark Peakman, of Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London, said: "When someone is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes they still typically have between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of their beta cells.
“We wanted to see if we could protect these remaining cells by retraining the immune system to stop attacking them.
"We still have a long way to go, but these early results suggest we are heading in the right direction. The peptide technology used in our trial is not only appears to be safe for patients at this stage, but it also has a noticeable effect on the immune system."
There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes, which can affect major organs in the body, including the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys. The UK has one of the highest rates of type 1 diabetes in the world with 400,000 people currently living with the condition.
The study was also supported by Diabetes UK and JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charity.
Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, the charity who supported the lead author of the study, said: "Diabetes UK is committed to increasing our understanding of the immune attack in type 1 diabetes and finding ways to stop it.
“These new findings are an exciting step towards immunotherapies being used to prevent this serious condition from developing in those at high risk, or stop it from progressing in those already diagnosed."
Prof Colin Dayan from Cardiff University, the clinical Chief Investigator for the study, added: "It was encouraging to see that people who receive the treatment needed less insulin to control their blood glucose levels, suggesting that their pancreas was working better.”
Karen Addington, UK Chief Executive of JDRF which funded the research, said: "Exciting immunotherapy research like this increases the likelihood that one day insulin-producing cells can be protected and preserved.
“That would mean people at risk of Type 1 diabetes might one day need to take less insulin, and perhaps see a future where no one would ever face daily injections to stay alive."
The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
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