News of a successful trial of a vaccine for type 1 diabetes has been covered by BBC News, who reported that, “It may be possible to reverse type 1 diabetes by training a patient’s own immune system to stop attacking their body.”

Type 1 diabetes is a condition where the body’s immune system destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. This means people with the condition require lifelong insulin treatment.

It’s possible to block the effects of the immune system by using immunosuppressants, but this would make people more vulnerable to infections. An ideal type 1 diabetes treatment would block the immune cells attacking the pancreas while leaving the rest of the immune system untouched. New research suggests that this could be possible.

A trial of a new vaccine compared its effects against placebo in just 80 people. The vaccine improved the function of the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas, but its effects seemed temporary as beta cell functioning declined soon after the regular vaccine injections were stopped. This suggests that regular vaccine injections might be required for it to work long-term, but this was not tested directly.

There are thought to be many different substances that are recognised by, and possibly trigger, immune cells to attack the beta cells of the pancreas. This vaccine is quite specific in preventing just one such pathway. This means the vaccine may lead to an improvement in symptoms, but not a complete cure for the condition.

Nonetheless, these are positive results and are likely to spur on larger and longer term studies. If all goes well, it could provide the basis for a new treatment approach for type 1 diabetes.