Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease which requires you to measure blood sugar and inject insulin daily, for the rest of your life.

Children may be vaccinated against type 1 diabetes in a few years

Type 1 diabetes may be triggered by viruses according to researchers at the University of Oslo. If their findings are supported by further research, this could lead to new ways of preventing diabetes, such as vaccination.

Type 1 diabetes causes the body to stop producing insulin. Those diagnosed must pump or inject insulin into the body every day for the rest of their lives.

An increasing number of Norwegian children develop type 1 diabetes. Norway is in fact at the top of the lists, together with other Nordic countries, when it comes to prevalence of type 1 diabetes among children in the world.

According to Apollon, the University of Oslo’s research magazine, there is a possibility that in a few years children might be able to be vaccinated against type 1 diabetes.

The body attacks itself

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. There is currently no prevention nor cure.

But why does the body attack its own cells?

Several genes predispose to type 1 diabetes.

However, environmental factors are also important to consider. Moving from areas with low incidence of diabetes to places with a high incidence increases the risk of developing the disease.

“Researchers have long suspected that viruses can trigger type 1 diabetes,” senior professor Knut Dahl-Jørgensen tells Apollon.

Dahl-Jørgensen is also chief physician at the Department of Children and Adolescents at Oslo University Hospital and has conducted several studies to support this theory.

Intestinal virus could be the culprit

Ten years ago, Dahl-Jørgensen and his colleagues extracted tissue samples from the pancreas of young adults with newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes.

In all of these patients, they found a type of enterovirus, CVB virus, that is normally found in the airways and intestines, but which does not belong in the pancreas. Such viruses cause both colds and communicable diseases.

The researchers couldn't extract tissue samples from completely healthy people, so the control group was made up of donor-pancreases from people without diabetes. The researchers found enterovirus in only ten per cent of these.

The researchers believe that genetic conditions in some people cause the immune system to overreact to the enteroviruses.

Chronic infection

In some people, the enterovirus causes a weak but chronic infection, which causes the body to destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas where the viruses reside.

The next step was to see if antiviral drugs could slow the disease before all insulin-producing cells are destroyed.

Two years ago, the researchers started a clinical trial in Norway and Denmark, involving almost a hundred children between the ages of six and fifteen.

These children have recently developed diabetes and still have some insulin production left.

Half receive antivirus medication, while the rest are given a placebo.

The results are not yet clear.

“If the medicine is shown to work, we have met all the criteria to claim type 1 diabetes is caused by a viral infection,” Dahl-Jørgensen tells Apollon.

Next step: vaccine

Work to develop vaccines against these viruses is in full swing. The Norwegian researchers are collaborating with researchers in Finland - another country with a very high prevalence of type 1 diabetes among children.

The enterovirus is similar to the poliovirus, against which we have an effective vaccine.

The first clinical trials of a Finnish enterovirus vaccine will probably take place this year.

Now researchers are excited about whether a vaccine will stop the destruction of insulin-producing cells.

A vaccine against type 1 diabetes could become a natural part of the Norwegian childhood immunisation programme.

If a vaccine works, this can be good news for other autoimmune diseases as well.

Vaccines against cancer-causing viruses

Sciencenorway.no has asked the Norwegian Institute of Public Health if the development of a vaccine against type 1 diabetes is a realistic scenario.

“We know that viruses can cause cancer, and two such vaccines are already in the childhood immunisation program,” chief physician Are Stuwitz Berg answers in an e-mail.

These include a vaccine against hepatitis B, which can cause liver cancer, and a vaccine against HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, cancer around the anus and external genitalia, as well as mouth and throat.

It is important that research is done on whether viruses can be among the causes of diseases other than infections, he believes.

Such discoveries could then lead to new ways of prevention, such as vaccination, he confirms.

“There is still a lot of research left to be done, but it will be exciting to see if future vaccination will be able to help reduce the incidence of diabetes,” Berg writes.

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