A widespread vaccine used to fight TB for almost a century could reverse Type 1 diabetes and eliminate the need for insulin injections — but is not considered profitable by drug firms.
Harvard University researchers attempting to raise funds to conduct large human studies have made the claim about the 90-year-old BCG vaccine, urging support in funding further research as it could lead to a major breakthrough in tackling diabetes.
Patients with Type 1 diabetes must inject insulin daily to control their blood sugar because their bodies do not produce the hormone. This is because their immune system destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The injections have long been considered the easiest way to tackle the problem.
However, according to early-stage study findings published in US journal PLOS One, the vaccine called bacillus Calmette-Guérin — or BCG — may be able to help create a protein that kills the insulin-attacking cells.
Results of the trial showed that two of the three patients given BCG had signs of renewed insulin production. The researchers now plan a larger study that could yield results in three to five years.
“We think this can be taken all the way to the market and that is what we are trying to do,” said Denise Faustman, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s immunobiology laboratory, who led the study.
The vaccine, a weakened form of the TB bacteria, stimulates production of TNF, a cell-signaling protein involved in cell death.
With more TNF, the body can attack those harmful immune cells while leaving the rest of the body’s defences intact. In the study, researchers administered two doses of the BCG vaccine to three patients with Type 1 diabetes.
The patients were followed for 20 weeks and two of the three were found to have an increase in the death of the insulin-harming cells and a rise in elevation in C-peptide levels, suggesting the production of insulin.
“These patients have been told their pancreases were dead,” said Dr Faustman. “We can take those people, give them a very low dose twice and see their pancreases kick in and start to make small amounts of insulin.”
Dr Faustman and her colleagues are working to get the vaccine to market. After their early findings in studies with mice, she said they tried to interest every major drugmaker in developing the vaccine as a possible cure for diabetes.
All those contacted said there was not enough money in a cure that used an inexpensive, generically available vaccine, she said.
As a result, the research team is now trying to raise funds to pay for the expensive larger human trials. To date, her lab has received €9m of the €20m needed — with all funding coming from private donors.
The Irish-based Diabetes Action group has estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 children and teenagers, and 14,000 across all age groups, have Type 1 diabetes here.
A recent report by the Public Health Institute of Ireland said that one-in-10 people over 45 would have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes by the end of this decade.
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