The results of a new study published by Science Translational Medicine suggest that it might be possible to retrain the immune system to prevent or slow attacks on insulin-producing beta cells.

In the MonoPepT1De trial, the authors discovered changes in the immune system of patients with type 1 diabetes were injected with peptides, which are small fragments of the protein found in pancreatic beta cells.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body attacks insulin-producing beta cells. Without treatment, the number of beta cells will diminish and the patient will be unable to control blood glucose levels.

“When someone is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes they still typically have between 15% and 20% of their beta cells. We wanted to see if we could protect these remaining cells by retraining the immune system to stop attacking them,” said researcher Mark Peakman, PhD. “We still have a long way to go, but these early results suggest we are heading in the right direction. The peptide technology used in our trial is not only safe for patients, but it also has a noticeable effect on the immune system.”

Currently, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. Without proper glycemic control, patients can experience problems with the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys.

The study results suggest that immunotherapy may stop immune attacks on beta cells and prevent glycemic issues, according to the authors.

“It was encouraging to see that people who receive the treatment needed less insulin to control their blood glucose levels, suggesting that their pancreas was working better” said chief investigator Colin Dayan, PhD.

Following the success of the clinical trial, researchers are collaborating with UCB Biopharma to develop MultipepT1De as a next generation product and conduct a phase 1b study evaluating the safety of the treatment, according to the study.

If proven effective, patients may no longer require daily, life-long insulin therapy.

“Exciting immunotherapy research like this increases the likelihood that one day insulin-producing cells can be protected and preserved,” said Karen Addington, UK chief executive of JDRF, which funded the research. “That would mean people at risk of Type 1 diabetes might one day need to take less insulin, and perhaps see a future where no one would ever face daily injections to stay alive.”