A rheumatoid arthritis drug which has been shown can help slow down the progression of type 1 diabetes could be available for use within five years, researchers have said.

Abatacept successfully stopped the progression of the condition during the entire two-year trial period and researchers are hoping the treatment might continue to work beyond that time frame.

It is thought the drug works by preserving the pancreas and the organ’s ability to produce insulin and also suppresses the body’s T cells, which are the immune cells that cause type 1 diabetes.

Lead researcher Professor Lucy Walker, of University College London, said: “Abatacept is already widely used to treat other autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.”

However, the medication has only been found to be effective in a third of people with type 1 diabetes and no one can identify why.

Professor Walker added: “Early tests in people with type 1 diabetes have found the drug is not suitable for routine use because the response is very variable – some people benefit a lot, while others not at all.”

But they have managed to find a way to determine who would benefit from the drug, by using artificial intelligence to analyse the person’s T-cells and their common factors.

Professor Walker said that “being able to tell in advance who is likely to respond may reignite interest in this therapy for those with diabetes”.

She added: “Our new work suggests that by analysing these T-cells, and looking at the markers they express, we can make predictions about how well people will respond to Abatacept.

“The next step will be to test this in more people and explore whether it works for other therapies and other autoimmune diseases.

“New improved versions of Abatacept have now been developed and it will be particularly exciting to see if the biomarker approach is applicable to these.”

In the UK, there are around 400,000 people with the type 1 diabetes, including 29,000 children.

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