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Headlines Published on 11 June 2007

Title European researchers poke away at Type 1 diabetes with effective vaccination in mice

People are protected from disease and infection because of the immune system found in their bodies. But when this system can no longer discriminate between 'non-self' and 'self', the body's own structures, like the endocrine system, nerves and muscles, are attacked. Now comes good news from Europe, as a team of French and German researchers are proving that, in principle, it is possible to treat autoimmune diseases by inducing 'active tolerance'. In a nutshell, the immune system is activated to protect, rather than attack the body's own structures. The paper detailing the study is now available online in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Potential diabetes vaccine shows promise in mice. © Joanna Servaes
Potential diabetes vaccine shows promise in mice.
Image: Joanna Servaes
The research team, led by Dr Roland S. Liblau of INSERM of Purpan University Hospital in Toulouse, France, and Dr Kirsten Falk and Dr Olaf Rötzschke of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch, Germany, treated Type 1 diabetic mice with a vaccination. The vaccine included structures that the immune system mistakenly attacks in Type 1 diabetes – a serious metabolic disorder.

Drs Falk and Rötzschke proved in an earlier experiment with mice that the misdirected immune system can be blocked. Mice were vaccinated with modified structures of the same organ against which the immune system runs wildly. The structures that activate the immune system are called 'antigens'. The MDC researchers showed that the animals are protected from this autoimmune disease because the body's own antigens were connected in a repetitive chain of copies. But they were unable to shed light on how and why the mechanism works.

This latest research now shows that the activation of the suppressor cells of the immune system generated the protective effect. The end result is that suppressor cells block T cells. It should be noted that suppressor cells raised against the body's structures selectively inhibit only those T cells that attack the body's own tissue. According to the researchers, the T cells that attack foreign structures, including bacteria or viruses, are not affected by the suppressor cells. Consequently, the immune system can recognise the body's own structures as 'self' and tolerate them, the findings showed.

'That is why suppressor cells have re-emerged as a promising research focus in immunology,' explained Dr Rötzschke. 'Suppressing undesired immune reactions through specific immunisations with the body's own antigens will open up a fundamental new approach to treatment.' According to him, it will make the treatment of Type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases possible.

In the case of Type 1 diabetes, misguided T cells of the immune system destroy the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin, a crucial hormone. When persons are affected by this disorder, they must inject insulin into their bodies for the rest of their lives.

More information:

  • The Innovative Medicines Initiative on Europa
  • American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  • INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale)
  • MDC

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