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Low doses of a drug currently used to treat lymphoma could offer hope to people at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes, a new international study finds.

Are you suffering from Type 1 diabetes, or does someone you live have the disease? You may have resigned yourself to the idea that Type 1 diabetes is a disease that sticks around for life and can't be prevented or cured. Science has not. 

"Diabetes is a growing problem worldwide," says Dr Dan Ploug Christensen from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Dr Christensen and his international team looked outside the box for a solution, and experimented with low doses of a cancer drug. 

Their findings may revolutionize treatment of Type 1 diabetes in the future, in a familiar-sounding way that is simultaneously more radical than anyone might dare to hope. "Prevention is better than cure" is common-sense advice when it comes to Type 2 diabetes, but could it apply to Type 1 as well? 

What Is Type 1 Diabetes Again?

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease, meaning it is caused by the patient's own immune system. The immune system is, of course, meant to attack germs and diseases. In Type 1 diabetes patients, the immune system attacks the cells that produce insulin instead. This means Type 1 diabetes patients currently have to rely on insulin injections for the rest of their lives, and is why the disease is also referred to as insulin-dependent diabetes.

Why is the immune system confused in people with Type 1 diabetes? While the exact cause remains unclear, we do know that there is a genetic component.

That doesn't mean you inherit Type 1 diabetes from your parents or even from ancestors further down the line — it can simply be an unlucky coincidence. Scientists are still looking for the ways in which someone who is more prone to developing the disease actually ends up with Type 1 diabetes, but we do already know which individuals are more at risk. That is exactly the group Dr Christensen and his team were interested in. 

Cancer Drugs Prevent Type 1 Diabetes

Dr Christensen and his colleagues gave low doses of a drug currently used to treat lymphoma to mice with higher odds of developing Type 1 diabetes. The doses were 100 times lower than those used to treat lymphoma.

The result? Fewer immune cells in the pancreas and a boost in insulin production!

"Our research shows that very low doses of anticancer drugs used to treat lymphoma — so-called lysine deacetylase inhibitors — can reset the immune response to not attack the insulin-producing cells," Dr Christensen says. He adds: "We find fewer immune cells in the pancreas, and more insulin is produced when we give the medicine in the drinking water to mice that would otherwise develop type 1 diabetes."

You might wonder how it works, and if it is safe. We can answer the second question by saying that the lower doses have already proven to be safe for use in children with specific rheumatic diseases. The first question is more difficult to answer. In short, the lymphoma drug blocks molecules that send inflammation signals to the cells that are meant to produce insulin in the pancreas. 

This, Dr Christensen shares, "prevents the cells from producing a number of factors which contribute to destroying the cells when exposed to inflammation." 

Besides the exciting findings the team made when observing mice who were given low doses of the drug, they also subjected insulin-producing tissues from human organ donors to the harmful inflammation signals, and found the drug was effective there too. The destruction of the human cells was significantly delayed. 

The exciting new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should pave the way for clinical trials that investigate whether the drug has the same positive effects on humans at risk of Type 1 diabetes — like close relatives of existing patients.

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