By Reporter
NBC News
updated 12/14/2004 3:40:45 PM ET 2004-12-14T20:40:45

An effective treatment for Type 1 diabetes may be just a few years away.

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New hopes have been raised with the announcement by British scientists at the University of Bristol and King’s College, London, that the first human trials for a vaccine for the illness will begin soon.

“A hundred years ago Type 1 diabetes was a death sentence, we’ve come a long way in managing the condition," said Georgina Slack, head of research at Diabetes U.K.

"Now we’re seeing new approaches in research emerge which are improving the chances of providing a cure. The prospect of finding a way of stopping the body from attacking itself and causing Type 1 diabetes is the holy grail of diabetes research.”

Different types of diabetes
There are two types of diabetes that can cripple patients:

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in younger patients, typically under 40 years old. It develops when the body itself destroys the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Blood-sugar levels are controlled by regular daily injections of a synthetically produced hormone, insulin. Approximately 300,000 people suffer from Type 1 diabetes in Britain while more than 1 million suffer from Type 1 in the United States.

Type 2 diabetes, which is far more common, is usually diagnosed in middle-aged or elderly people and can also occur in patients who are particularly obese. This type occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough of its own insulin or does not respond normally to the insulin produced.

Advance in research
The research that has brought the vaccine for Type 1 diabetes nearer to becoming a reality involved inoculating mice with a protein that stops the body from destroying the insulin-producing cells, effectively protecting them from the disease for the rest of their lives. 

A further three years of work on human blood samples has identified the same protein, with the tests triggering the same responses as in the mice.

The vaccine contains a molecule that is similar to a part of the insulin-producing islet cells in the body. The molecule, when added to human blood, forms a protective barrier against the white blood cells that destroy the insulin-producing cells.

A company called Clinalfa, which is owned by the pharmaceutical firm Merck, is producing the vaccine.

The initial trials are due to begin in Spring 2005 and will ensure that the vaccine is safe for use in humans.

Human trials
Seventy-two patients with recently diagnosed Type 1 diabetes have been recruited by Kings College, London, and Bristol University. The initial trials will use these diagnosed diabetics to assess their reaction to the vaccine, but will not employ the full inoculation. 

The full vaccine will be used if there are no recorded adverse side effects in a further 18-month clinical trial involving new volunteers. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International and the Diabetes Vaccine Development Centre in Melbourne, Australia, will jointly fund the vaccine trial.

Dr. Colin Dayan, one of the researchers at Bristol University, said the trials will help patients who have recently been diagnosed. "It might stop their insulin-producing cells from deteriorating further. Then if it proves to be very safe, we would think about using it in people who are at high risk of developing Type 1 diabetes,” he said.

Other scientists are also looking into treating Type 1 diabetes with organ transplants and stem-cell research.

Matthew Wilson is the NBC News London Bureau Coordinator.

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