The Diabetes Vaccine: What It Is, What It Isn’t, And The Race To A Cure

Have you ever played “Two Truths and a Lie”? The idea is that you make three statements, one of which is false, and see if your friends can separate fact from fiction. If you’re part of the diabetes community, you may feel like you’re playing that game every day of your life.

If you do a quick internet search for “diabetes vaccine,” one of the first results is an article from refuting a claim that the cure for type 1 diabetes had been discovered. According to Snopes, the “Live Your Diabetes” organization in Mexico held a press conference announcing a cure in 2015, but the Mexican government shut down the organization for lying about a “bogus therapy” within 24 hours.

But don’t let the lies quash your hope—there is real work happening in the hunt for a diabetes vaccine. There are at least three potential vaccines in the works: the vaccine against enterovirus for type 1 prevention, the BCG vaccine for type 1 reversal, and the Alum-GAD vaccine for type 1 prevention or delay.

Photo: AdobeStock/Barabas Attila
Photo: AdobeStock/Barabas Attila

The Enterovirus Vaccine

For over 20 years, a research team in Finland has been working on a vaccine that they hope will prevent type 1 diabetes. Clinical trials are expected to start in 2018.

The theory behind the vaccine is that a strain of the enterovirus causes the immune system to target and destroy beta cells. The enterovirus is also linked to the development of polio, hepatitis, and meningitis. A vaccine to protect against the virus has been successfully tested in mice, and the next phase will involve tests on adults, then on children, and a final phase will determine if the vaccine will truly prevent type 1 in youth. The process could take up to 8 years.

Researchers are clear that this vaccine will not reverse type 1, but they do hope it will someday prevent new cases from developing.

Photo: AdobeStock/Vasiliy Koval
Photo: AdobeStock/Vasiliy Koval

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The BCG Vaccine

The results of a clinical trial on the generic vaccine bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) showed that the vaccine may be able to restore the proper function of the islet cells, restarting insulin production in those with type 1 diabetes. The vaccine is designed to restore the T-cells that prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells.

The BCG vaccine has been used for over 100 years, and is currently used as prevention for tuberculosis and a treatment for bladder cancer. Studies around the world are examining the potential of BCG to prevent autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and multiple scelerosis. Current research is being done at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

The BCG vaccine was successful in reversing type 1 diabetes in mice and was determined safe for humans in a phase I clinical trial. The Phase II trial will take five years and involve 150 people. It’s estimated that the Phase II trial will be completed in 2023.

Photo: AdobeStock/Africa Studio
Photo: AdobeStock/Africa Studio

The Alum-GAD Vaccine

GAD, or glutamic acid decarboxylase, may preserve insulin production in people with type 1 diabetes. The presence of GAD antibodies is associated with the development of type 1, and injections with GAD may preserve insulin production. But large-scale studies have not yet confirmed this theory.

A study in Sweden conducted from 2009 to 2017 tested the Alum-GAD vaccine in children and determined that it was safe, but conclusions about its role in prevention could not be determined because of the size of the study (only 50 youth were involved). Now that the vaccine has been deemed safe, further tests and trials can be conducted. However, if Alum-GAD does have prevention or suspension potential for type 1, it will still be a long time before the diabetes community sees the benefit.

Photo: AdobeStock/kaliantye
Photo: AdobeStock/kaliantye

Work is being done, but it’s always slower than we want—and need. But with so much research in the works, we can hope that the next time we hear about a diabetes vaccine, it will be the real thing.

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