A study partly-funded by JDRF has found that viruses could be the answer for the survival of insulin-producing beta cells. This approach could combat type 1 diabetes.


Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were able to restore normal blood glucose levels in mice using a virus carrying two genes. These genes contained instructions for two proteins that are important for beta cell function and insulin production. The virus delivered these genes to cells in the pancreas, which triggered them to start producing insulin.

In type 1 diabetes (T1D), the immune system damages and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. One avenue to cure T1D is to find a way to regenerate the damaged beta cells or transform other pancreatic cells to do the role of beta cells.

Alpha cells are found in the pancreas, and do the opposite of beta cells – they release a hormone called glucagon to increase blood glucose levels when they drop too low. Unlike beta cells however, alpha cells are not affected to the same extent as beta cells in the autoimmune attack that causes T1D. The newly-delivered genes reprogrammed alpha cells in the pancreas into functional, insulin-producing beta cells.

The research team expected that inflammation would quickly wipe out the reprogrammed cells but instead, the mice thrived for four months before an immune reaction destroyed the cells.

In a further test, the team used the same virus strategy to make human alpha cells turn into beta cells in the lab. These were able to normalise blood glucose levels when transplanted into mice.

Researchers need to complete further testing to gather more safety data in mice before the research can progress to human trials. The fact that these results didn’t involve the use of drugs to suppress the immune system indicates that the therapy’s effectiveness could be further boosted in combination with such drugs. Current studies for other diseases are already trialling similar virus delivery methods in humans. This could mean an accelerated pathway to human studies if we do achieve further successful results in early T1D studies.

Though still early, this is an exciting development and opens up new research and treatment avenues for T1D. It’s all part of the journey to remove the burden of this disease from daily life.


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