Chinese researchers said Tuesday they have developed a gene therapeutic approach that may allow the body to produce enough omega-3 fatty acids to reverse the onset of type 1 diabetes.
The work, led by Professor Allan Zhao of the Guangdong University of Technology and published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, may offer the hope of curing this autoimmune condition that affects millions of children and young adults worldwide.
Type 1 diabetes develops when the body is unable to produce insulin, a substance required to regulate blood sugar levels by moving glucose out of the blood and into cells to be used for energy.
It is an autoimmune disease, where the body's immune system that normally protects against infections attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells within the pancreatic islets.
“For decades, scientists have tried to come up with a way to help the patients fight the autoimmunity and regenerate functional islets to completely cure diabetes,” Zhao said.
There are, however, currently no therapies that can successfully reverse the damage or progression of autoimmune attacks in type 1 diabetes, and patients have to inject insulin daily.
Zhao's work was inspired by previous studies that those with a family history of type 1 diabetes who start an omega-3 fish oil supplement from infancy will have a significant reduction in the risk of developing the disease.
They first tested the omega-3 therapy using mice to show that intervention with dietary supplementation of two fatty acids, known as EPA and DHA, does significantly reduce the incidence of type 1 diabetes.
Then, they developed a gene-therapeutic technology that took advantage of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vector to carry a gene fragment to express an enzyme, which then allows the production of high levels of EPA and DHA within the body.
“This will bypass the need of relying on nutritional intake of large quantity of fish-oil supplements for EPA and DHA,” Zhao said.
The new method was found able to reverse autoimmunity and blocked the autoimmune destruction of pancreatic islets, the process that leads to type 1 diabetes.
More importantly, the technology made type 1 diabetic mice regenerate the islets that restored the secretion of insulin.
“For the first time, a single technology has achieved both blockade or reversal of autoimmunity and regeneration of pancreatic islets,” Zhao said.
“This work provides the hope to type 1 diabetic patients, especially those who are at the early stage of diabetic development, that the disease is actually reversible and they may no longer need to rely on daily insulin injection to normalize blood glucose.”
Zhao said that the test of safety of this technology is already underway.
“If passed, it can be applied to cure not only diabetes but, potentially, other autoimmune diseases as well, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis,” he added.