A Cure for Type 1 Diabetes?

by Marissa Donovan

A former tuberculosis vaccine is thought to be a possible cure for type 1 diabetes. Research led by Dr. Faustman at Massachusetts General Hospital recently got FDA approval to launch a new trial treating adult type 1 diabetics with bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG).

Dr. Denise Faustman

Dr. Denise Faustman

Although still in trial phases, scientists believe that an old tuberculosis vaccine could be the key to fighting type 1 diabetes. Denise Faustman, MD, PhD and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital leads the team, which just got FDA clearance for a five-year phase 2 trial. Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG)—first used as a tuberculosis vaccine—or a placebo will be given to 150 participants recruited through the MGH Immunobiology Laboratory to develop the best dose and timing to potentially reverse type 1 diabetes.

Researchers believe that this vaccine succeeds by killing abnormal T-cells (that inhibit insulin production) and helping good T-cells, a type of white blood cell that aids in immunity. They offer that BCG temporarily raises the body’s levels of Tumor Necrosis Factors (TNF), a cell signaling protein, or cytokine, involved in the immune response of the body. The thought is that TNF kills disease-causing T-cells, thereby allowing the pancreas to produce necessary insulin.

Dr. Faustman has been experimenting with the BCG vaccine for over 20 years and already completed a successful trial revealing that this vaccine reversed type 1 diabetes in mice. Additionally, a phase 1 trial was done with BCG given to adult humans with type 1 diabetes, showing it eliminated malfunctioning T-cells and even restored insulin production in the pancreas.

This study gives promise to those with type 1 diabetes, which can lead to complications including heart disease, blindness, and limb amputations. Furthermore, type 1 diabetics were found to live 11-13 years fewer than those without the disease, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although this is a great improvement compared to the life expectancy of type 1 diabetics in the past, an intervention like Dr. Faustman’s work could make strides to closing this gap. If successful, this treatment could be an inexpensive, non-toxic cure for advanced type 1 diabetes.

Marissa Donovan is a registered dietitian and first year student in the MS Nutrition Communications program at the Friedman school. She loves hiking, traveling, finding new restaurants and, of course, Netflix. You can follow her on twitter at @marissadonovan1.

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