A protein that has the potential to prevent or even reverse the development of type 1 diabetes in its early stages has been identified by researchers in Australia.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when an imbalance in the immune system causes it to attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Experts at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, lead by Professor Len Harriso, believe that a protein in the body, called CD52, can be used to stop type 1 diabetes or reverse the disease before all the pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed.
They found that CD52 works as an immune suppressor, “a previously undiscovered mechanism that the body uses to regulate and protect itself against excessive or damaging immune responses”.
The researchers explained that CD52 can ‘dock’ onto receptors located on the surfaces of certain T cells, a group of regulatory cells in the immune system which interact to keep the system in balance. Autoimmune disease develops when this balance is upset, causing different kinds of T cells to attack the body’s own healthy tissue.
T cells that carry high levels of CD52 release the protein to “dampen the activity of other T cells and prevent uncontrolled immune responses”, and according to Prof Harriso, this makes them essential for maintaining normal balance in the immune system.
“We are excited about the prospect of developing this discovery to clinical trials as soon as possible, to see if CD52 can be used to prevent and treat type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. This has already elicited interest from pharmaceutical companies,” the diabetes researcher said.
“In animal models we can prevent and cure Type 1 diabetes, and I am hopeful that these results will be translatable into humans, hopefully in the not-too-distant future,” he added.
The findings were published this week in the journal Nature Immunology.

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