Scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and BCDiabetes are recruiting patients diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes for a year-long study involving a drug that can potentially reduce or eliminate the need for regular insulin shots.
The pilot clinical test requires 20 young males and females, aged 18-35, who have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the past 100 days. The participants will receive three to five injection of an immune-modulating medication called ustekinumab, which has the brand name Stelara.
In Canada, Stelara has been approved as treatment for psoriasis.
Dr. Tom Elliott, an associate professor at UBC, has been working with BCDiabetes to conduct the research.
"It's a chance to get a cure for this, which is unheard of so far," Elliott said.
"My research team has identified a molecule that's been used very successfully for treating a form of arthritis that looks like a very good candidate to stop the destruction of insulin-secreting cells that is the cause of Type 1 diabetes."
While BCDiabetes is not the first clinic to test the effectiveness of Stelara for treating Type 1 diabetes, its researchers are continuing studies conducted in the past decade together with advancements in immunotherapy medications. These drugs are more often used for treating chronic inflammatory illnesses, such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. Scientists, however, also consider them as potential medications to treat illnesses that cause the human body to attack its own systems.
"The immune system is generally our friend," Elliott added. "It's killing off invading bacteria, viruses, cancer cells; it's very, very effective. So to mess with the immune system is a delicate process."
"(In diabetes) there's something that starts a cascade of immune destruction that we don't understand. This drug picks off a couple of points in the cascade that look very promising."
Tests conducted in the United States in the past found insufficient evidence that immune-regulating drugs can work on Type 1 diabetes. These previous studies, however, yielded only a few dangerous side effects as well.
Experts warn about administering the tests in young patients who have yet to complete the development of their immune system, which makes it difficult because this age group is typically the most common suffers of the condition.
Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes because it mostly develops in children compared to Type 2 diabetes, which afflicts mostly middle aged people who are inactive and overweight.
The illness causes the immune system to eliminate specialized cells in the pancreas that produce the insulin needed to regulate the blood sugar levels in the body. This often leads to damage in the kidneys, blindness, and even amputation of the limbs in severe cases.
According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, an estimated [pdf] 400,000 people in British Columbia suffer from diabetes in 2013, around 31,000 of which have Type 1 diabetes.
Dave Prowten, president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in Canada, explained that the research on using Stelara for Type 1 diabetes provides a new way to treat people who have been diagnosed with the illness just recently.
He said that the study is crucial in exploring how the body of diabetic patients reacts to a treatment that alters the immune system. It could also help develop new procedures to address the condition.
The JDRF is funding the UBC and BCDiabetes research.
Tess Watson | Flickr