9 May 2003
Scientists at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have made a discovery that could lead to a new approach to the prevention of type 1 diabetes.
Using genetically engineered mice, the scientists have prevented diabetes developing in animals that are highly susceptible. A longer term objective is to translate this new strategy into a practical therapy for humans.
About 15 per cent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. This form of the disease usually begins in childhood and is controlled by insulin injections, but holds the risk of serious long-term complications.
Type 1 diabetes can be considered an auto-immune disease, that is, the body’s immune system misidentifies and attacks the body’s own healthy tissue, and in the case of type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Dr Raymond Steptoe and Professor Leonard Harrison have set out to re-educate the body’s immune system so that the mistakes in identity that result in type 1 diabetes are eliminated. This re-education programme consists of collecting, genetically altering and then re-inserting some of the body’s own blood stem cells.
These blood stem cells give rise to new cells in the blood and immune system that inactivate the cells that attack healthy insulin-producing cells.
Dr Steptoe explained, ‘In a clinical setting we would harvest these blood stem cells from individuals who have a demonstrated risk for type 1 diabetes, insert a small amount of genetic material and transfer these cells back to the patient.
‘This new autoimmune disease prevention technique has proven to be entirely successful in animals, but human trials may still be some years away.’
The scientists also cautioned that while the new technique might eventually be used to prevent type 1 diabetes, it will not cure those who already require insulin injections.
Last Reviewed: 12 May 2003