Drugs used to treat malaria could play a role in future type 1 diabetes treatment, research has suggested.
Artemisinin is the name given to a group of medications given to people with the tropical disease which is spread by mosquitoes.
A team from Austria believe the drugs can help kick-start insulin-producing cells in the body by genetically transforming alpha cells.
In their study, researchers from the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine built on previous research that showed that alpha cells can replenish insulin-producing cells following beta cell loss. Type 1 diabetes is characterized by the destruction of these insulin-producing beta cells.
Previous research has shown that the alpha cell called Arx – needs to be suppressed in order to retain the cell’s identify.
Dr Stefan Kubicek, who led the study, said: “Arx regulates many genes that are crucial for the functionality of an alpha cell. Preceding work of our collaborator, Patrick Collombat’s team showed that a genetic knockout of Arx leads to a transformation of alpha cells into beta cells.”
By testing the different effects of approved drugs on alpha cells, the researchers found artemisinins mimicked the same effect as the loss in Arx.
Dr Kubicek said: “With our study, we could show that artemisinins change the epigenetic program of glucagon-producing alpha cells and induce profound alterations of their biochemical function.”
The findings, which have been published in the journal Cell, indicate that the same effect could be replicated in the human body.
Dr Kubicek added: “Obviously, the long-term effect of artemisinins needs to be tested. Especially the regenerative capacity of human alpha cells is yet unknown. Furthermore, the new beta cells must be protected from the immune system.
“But we are confident that the discovery of artemisinins and their mode of action can form the foundation for a completely new therapy of type 1 diabetes.”

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