Behind the headlines: does new study really take us closer to escaping insulin injections?

Posted on 26 November 2015

This morning you may have seen reports from some newspapers that a new approach to treating type 1 has shown real promise in a very small trial. The headline in the Independent was “new treatment could free type 1 diabetics from ‘daily grind’ of insulin injections.”news_needle

JDRF helped to fund the study behind these news reports. A team of researchers in California, led by Professor Jeff Bluestone, have worked with 14 people very newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes to see if they can harness cells from each individual’s own immune system to control the reaction that causes type 1 diabetes in the first place.

In the trial the researchers collected 400ml of blood from each patient (that’s just a little less than is collected when you donate blood) and then separated out a particular type of immune cell called a regulatory T cell (or “T reg” for short). In the laboratory they then gave these cells the ideal environment to grow and divide, so that they could give each person back a high dose of their own cells.

This trial was a safety study, to make sure the approach didn’t make anyone with type 1 more ill, or have nasty side effects. So the first patients in the trial were given back roughly the number of cells that had been taken out in the first place, and then as the trial progressed, later participants were given increasingly higher numbers of cells. Throughout the trial there appeared to be no serious adverse events associated with the treatment, even at higher doses.

This is great news because it means that the therapy is safe enough to be tried in a larger number of people. The information that the research team collected about how the cells were working in the body is also very valuable as it showed that the therapy was working in the expected way.

This would be excellent news on its own, but the other good news came from the reports that the therapy did also seem to have an impact on how much insulin some of the people with type 1 in the trial were able to produce. It’s a mixed picture, but about half of the people in the study were producing more insulin a year after their diagnosis than would normally be expected. However, as the study was only conducted in 14 people, we can’t know if these findings were a result of the therapy or just random chance.

So the papers got it a bit right, and a bit wrong! The study is very exciting as it shows there may be a promising new treatment to help people newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on the near horizon. But we can’t know if it will take away the burden of insulin injections just yet.

JDRF is helping to fund the phase 2 clinical study that will follow up on these results and find out whether this therapy is effective at helping people with type 1 either by removing the need for insulin entirely or prolonging the ‘honeymoon phase’ for as long as possible.

A cure for people who have type 1 today is likely to come from a combination of therapies like this (which help to fix the immune system fault that causes type 1 in the first place) and therapies that can give people new insulin producing cells to replace those already destroyed.

To find out how to support our work on curing type 1, click here.