As a college student in Australia, Maria Koulmanda began researching type 1 diabetes as part of a summer job. Thirty years later, Koulmanda and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School now think that they may have found a cure.
In a study on mice, the researchers found that a protein used to treat people with emphysema and lung diseases may also promote insulin production in diabetics.
If the protein is as effective in humans as it was in mice, a few months of treatment would permit type 1 diabetics to produce their own insulin, rather than injecting themselves with synthetic insulin with each meal.
The breakthrough “would help 24.5 million people who do have type 1 diabetes,” said Shana Vernoia of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
While injecting insulin allows a diabetic to manage his or her illness, the only way to cure diabetes is a pancreas transplant, which requires taking intensive immunosuppressant drugs so that the person’s body does not reject the organ.
The protein cure would be the first of its kind, and could be particularly useful in treating children, who cannot receive transplants because of the severity of the immunosupressant drugs that are required.
In type 1 diabetes, a person’s t-cells destroy insulin-producing cells in his or her pancreas, mistaking them for foreign cells.
Without insulin, which removes glucose from the bloodstream, the body’s organs can be damaged and cells are unable to metabolize glucose, meaning that no energy is produced to fuel the person’s body.
Before insulin was discovered in the 1920s, “diabetic children would die,” said Koulmanda, who is an assistant professor of surgery at the Medical School.
With the new treatment, Kolumanda said, the protein suppresses the cells that would inhibit the production of insulin and increases the production of those that enchance it. This, she said, creates “a very friendly environment where the beta cells are not attacked anymore and where the [insulin-producing] cells can recover and multiply.”
Koulmanda said she and her co-author, Terry B. Strom, a Medical School professor, hope to begin clinical trials by the end of the year.
Their work has been conditionally approved by the Immune Tolerance Network, which examines research protocols and determines whether it will support research for clinical trials, according to Koulmanda.
Koulmanda said that though she doesn’t have any personal experience with diabetes, she empathizes with the millions of people that her work could help.
“Fortunately, I don’t have anyone who is a diabetic in my family,” Koulmanda said. “[But] going to clinic is very personal, with 30 years of my life working on it.”
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