First of its kind cancer treatment approved – what does it mean for type 1 diabetes?

Author: Angela's story | Posted: 31 August 2017

Today, US medical authorities announced their approval for a revolutionary blood cancer treatment to be used across the USA – and it could pave the way for similar treatments for type 1 diabetes. Angela Wipperman, our Research Communications Senior Manager, explains the link between this new treatment, and current type 1 research.

Treatments that try to change the behaviour of the immune system are called immunotherapies. This particular cancer treatment is revolutionary because it is tailor-made for each individual patient based on their own immune system.

The FDA (the regulatory body that sanctions medical treatments for public use in the United States) approved the cancer treatment, called CAR-T, which involves removing special immune system cells from the blood, genetically reprogramming them to attack cancerous cells, and putting them back into the body.

What does this mean for type 1 diabetes?

Researcher with microscopeThere might not seem to be much of a link between a new cancer treatment and type 1 diabetes, but immunotherapy is also a huge area of potential for type 1.

Type 1 diabetes arises because the immune system behaves incorrectly, attacking the body’s own insulin-producing beta cells, meaning people with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin. Immunotherapy research is trying to change the behaviour of the immune system to stop this attack in its tracks. Some approaches are very similar to the cancer treatment approved today, although in cancer the goal is to encourage the immune system to attack cancerous cells, while in type 1 diabetes we are trying to stop the immune system attacking harmless cells.

That an immunotherapy like CAR-T has been shown to be so successful (85 per cent of the 63 people who participated in a trial of the therapy were in remission after three months) and has been approved by a strict regulatory body is a good sign for future, similar treatments. This decision paves the way for other immunotherapy treatments to be approved for clinical use once clinical trials can show they are safe and effective.

What immunotherapy treatments are there for type 1 diabetes?

There is currently no immunotherapy treatment available in clinics for type 1 diabetes, but there are a number of research projects currently tackling this issue in the UK. We recently announced that researchers from King’s College London had been able to slow the progression of type 1 in recently diagnosed adults using an immunotherapy in a human clinical trial.

We are also funding Professor Susan Wong, at Cardiff University, who is working in the lab on a similar therapy to CAR-T. Professor Wong is genetically modifying immune system cells to turn them into ‘assassins’, which can seek out and destroy the rogue immune cells responsible for damaging beta cells in the pancreas.

The news about CAR-T is encouraging for all those living with autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes, which could one day be treated and even cured by immunotherapy.