Is it possible to create a vaccine that prevents type 1 diabetes? According to researchers in Scandinavia, it might already be here.
It’s been suggested for some time that viral infections play a role in the autoimmune attack that leads to type 1 diabetes. A large study published in 2017 in the journal Diabetologia suggested that a common group of enteroviruses might increase children’s risk for developing type 1 diabetes, and, according to JDRF, one of the leading organizations devoted to the study of type 1 diabetes, “Researchers believe there can be triggers, such as viral infections, that may be associated with the onset of the disease.” As a result, scientists have speculated that if a virus really is involved in the onset of type 1 diabetes, it might therefore be possible to develop a vaccine to prevent it.
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Building on this hypothesis, the scientists, who are from the Karolinska Institutet, which is outside Stockholm, Sweden, and the universities of Jyväskylä and Tampere in Finland, have just announced they have produced just such a vaccine. They published their research in the journal Science Advances.
The researchers explained that although there is a genetic component to type 1 diabetes, environmental factors also contribute to its development. One of those factors is believed to be a subgroup of enteroviruses known as the Coxsackie B family, or CVBs. CVBs can cause the common cold but also more serious illnesses, such as myocarditis and meningitis. Some scientists have proposed that CVBs also play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. Because a feature of type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune attack on the beta cells — the insulin-producing cells — in the pancreas, it’s possible that a virus infection causes the immune system to launch this attack, and previous research has indicated that CVBs might be involved. Some autopsy findings have supported this hypothesis.
The researchers at the Karolinska Institutet and Jyväskylä and Tampere universities were able to develop a vaccine that protects against all the six known strains of CVB. At first it was tested on animal models and the scientists determined that it kept mice infected with CVBs from developing type 1 diabetes. The researchers then tried the vaccine on rhesus monkeys, which are especially suitable because of their genetic similarity to humans. The results were positive and the vaccine stimulated antibodies to CVB, which implied that it could offer protection against the diabetes-causing virus.
The next step is to test the vaccine on humans. According to Vesa Hytönen, PhD, associate professor in cell and molecular biology at Tampere University, “This work was the result of close Tampere-Stockholm teamwork. The results are exciting and support the ongoing development of the clinical vaccine towards human trials.” And Professor Heikki Hyöty, MD, PhD, also from Tampere, said, “The results give important scientific support to an ongoing clinical development program aiming at testing a similar clinical vaccine in humans.” The plan now is to have the testing done by an American pharmaceutical company in collaboration with a Finnish biotech company. Malin Flodström-Tullberg, PhD, professor of type 1 diabetes at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge, Karolinska Institutet, and one of the study’s lead authors, explained, “Our hope is that these trials will show that this kind of vaccine is effective against CVB infections and can be administered to children. It would be fantastic if we could prevent the cases of type 1 diabetes that we currently suspect are caused by Coxsackie virus, although the exact number is difficult to estimate. At the same time, the vaccine would give protection against myocarditis, which can have a severe course in both children and adults, and against some types of colds, which regularly keep many away from school and work.”