LONDON -- Preliminary research suggests that a new drug could stop the progression of type I diabetes by halting the destruction of insulin-producing cells.
Experts say that as well as stopping deterioration in people in the early stages of the disease, the drug eventually could also be given to pre-diabetics to prevent the illness, an incurable autoimmune disease which afflicts about 15 million people worldwide.
"Right now this is probably the most exciting thing we have in front of us," said Dr. Jerry Palmer, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle who was not connected to the study.
In type I diabetes, the immune system goes awry and kills insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. It occurs mostly in children and adolescents, but is increasingly being seen in adults. In type II diabetes, which accounts for 90 percent of diabetes and is not an autoimmune condition, the beta cells are intact but the body doesn't use insulin properly.
Scientists believe that type I diabetes may be triggered by an infection or other irritant which puts the insulin-producing cells under stress.
The cells secrete a stress chemical, attracting immune system cells patrolling the body. The immune cells mistake the stressed beta cells as foreign invaders and release a poison to kill them.
The experimental drug, developed by Israeli pharmaceutical maker Peptor Ltd., contains a substance that prompts immune cells to release a harmless anti-inflammatory chemical meant to calm inflamed tissue instead of a deadly poison for an unwelcome stranger.
Similar approaches are being pursued for other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
"This is the first study to show that you can stop beta cell destruction by outside immunization," said one of the investigators, Dr. Itamar Raz, head of the Hadassah Center for Diabetes at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical School in Jerusalem. "We do know today for the first time that by giving a small amount of antigen we can change the whole characteristic of the immune system and stop that attack."
The study, published this week in The Lancet medical journal, involved 31 men who had been diagnosed with type I diabetes within the previous six months.
They all got the insulin injections they needed, but in addition, 15 got the drug, DiaPep277, and 16 got a fake injection. The injections were given on the first day of the study, after one month and after six months.