Can Type 1 Diabetes Be Reversed?

Individuals with Type 2 diabetes are fortunate in that it's possible, with diet and lifestyle changes, to actually reverse the course of the disease. Even if they're unable to reverse Type 2, it's possible for them to avoid going on insulin by losing weight, watching carbs, and getting moderate exercise.

Those with Type 1, however, can't change the reality that they'll always need to take insulin since their bodies no longer make it. Or can Type 1 diabetes ever be reversed?

Very preliminary experiments suggest that it might in fact be possible to reverse Type 1 with an inexpensive vaccine that keeps the immune system from attacking pancreatic cells, reports the Los Angeles Times. Studies in mice already had documented the effectiveness of the tuberculosis vaccine known as BCG in Type 1 diabetes. That vaccine was shown to prevent T cells from attacking the insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. In mice that got the vaccine, the pancreas began to regenerate and to produce insulin once again, effectively "curing" the mice of their diabetes.

An immune system protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is pivotal in the research. When blood levels of TNF are increased, studies show, the protein blocks other areas of the immune system that attack the body, particularly the pancreas.

Researchers report that humans who got low doses of the vaccine began to demonstrate transient increases in insulin production. At Massachusetts General Hospital, medical experts are getting ready to try higher doses of the vaccine in larger groups of people.

The research is intriguing: if the vaccine works, even those who've had Type 1 diabetes for awhile might have their pancreas function restored, reports the Los Angeles Times. That depends, of course, on whether it's possible to block the beta cell-destroying parts of the immune system. "It's fascinating research," says Spyros Mezitis, MD, Ph.D., endocrinology consultant at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "It's changing the way we think about Type 1 diabetes."

Further experiments are needed with more individuals who have Type 1 diabetes, Mezitis says. "And higher doses of BCG tuberculosis vaccine are needed to confirm these important results," he adds.

Immunology expert Eva Mezey, MD, who directs the adult stem-cell unit at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, called the study results "fascinating and very promising," according to the Los Angeles Times. She noted, though, that only a small number of patients had gotten good results, and that vaccinations would most likely need to be repeated on a regular basis.



Maugh, Thomas H. "Research shows promise in reversing Type 1 diabetes." 25 June 2011. Los Angeles Times.