What is the Diabetes Vaccine? Does It Actually Work?
Rumors of a proposed diabetes vaccine have been circling the web since 2016, when the site Time for You shared an article claiming that one had been discovered. This article was notoriously false and was quickly shut down by health authorities as containing fraudulent and potentially dangerous information.
However, while the most popular reference for a diabetes vaccine was false, vaccinating against diabetes (Type 1) is becoming increasingly more likely through immunotherapy, to the point where there are actually several legitimate programs running clinical trials and tests towards reaching a diabetes vaccine.
The most famous of these is happening at the Finnish University of Tamprere, but there are also initiatives in the UK and at the University of Maryland, and any or all of them could pay off.
University of Tampere Diabetes Vaccine
The University of Tampere is home to a team headed by Heikki Hyöty, Olli H. Laitinen, and Hanna Honkanen that has spent the last 2 decades researching the link between viral infections and Type 1 diabetes. The team now believes that coxsackievirus B1 plays a strong part in creating the immune system response that destroys insulin cells in the pancreas. Because the link between Type 1 diabetes and viral infection is well documented to the point that researchers understand that viral infections most likely push malfunctioning immune systems over the brink into diabetes. However, every current study into a diabetes vaccine is looking into the overproduction of T cells, which then go on to target insulin beta cells.
While we still don’t understand why the body chooses to identify these beta cells as foreign, researchers hypothesize that the body’s HLA complex is malfunctioning, causing it to be unable to differentiate, possibly after exposure to coxsakievirus B1. While this explanation is highly simplified, it enabled researchers at the University of Tampere to identify Diabetes Type 1 patients significantly before their diagnosis. Cosackievirus is responsible for about a quarter of all entovirus infections in children, and researchers estimate that about 5% of CB1 infections manifest into Type 1 diabetes.
So, what about a vaccine? Researchers are moving towards a vaccine for CB1, with the intent of stopping one of the infections that is likely behind Diabetes Type 1. While this treatment option is moving into clinical trials in 2018, we won’t know if it’s successful for 8 more years.
What About Other Vaccines
There are several other vaccine initiatives, and all of them are taking a slightly different approach. For example, Denise Faustman at the University of Maryland is working to create a treatment option for people who have had a diagnosis for 5 years or more. Her research led her to notice that Diabetes Type 1 patients have an excess of T cells, with very low levels of a hormone known as TNF (Tumor Necrosis Factor). She is currently using Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, BCG, commonly known as the tuberculosis vaccine, to stimulate production of TNF in possible patients. And, while her trials are in the early stages, they are showing success, slowing the onset of diabetes, boosting the body’s production of insulin beta cells, and even restoring some insulin function.
In Germany, Ezio Boficacio and Annette Ziegler are also working on a vaccine, although their method takes a more unconventional approach. With decades of experience in establishing early identification for Diabetes in children based on the immune system and autoantibodies, the pair are now working on a possible oral insulin introduction to train the immune system to it, in much the same way that introducing peanuts early on can help to prevent peanut allergies. However, similar trials have been attempted in the past, with very little in the way of results.
And, in London, Mark Peakman, PhD, is focusing on treating the inflammation following immune system responses. He uses fragmented beta cells to attempt to stop T cell attacks on other beta cells, which would potentially cause them to identify insulin as harmless.
There are several other diabetes vaccines and studies in the works, many of which show promising results, and most of which are focusing on T cell reactions.
So, Are Diabetes Vaccines a Cure?
No. Like any vaccine, the diabetes vaccine would theoretically have to be administered before the onset of diabetes. Doctor Faustman’s approach is the only current ‘vaccine’ that could be relevant for people who already have a diagnosis, while every other option is aimed at preventing rather than curing the disease.
Unfortunately, if a diabetes vaccine were to result from existing market research, we likely won’t see it for more than 20 years. However, with multiple advancements, we are getting closer to preventing and treating type 1 diabetes, without insulin.