A discovery by researchers at St. Michaelâ€™s Hospital is giving new hope to patients with type 1 diabetes.
Scientists have found that a neurotransmitter in the brains of mice also plays a role in the pancreas and can prevent and even reverse type 1 diabetes.
The study, published Monday in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on the role of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, an amino acid produced by the beta cells of the pancreas.
GABA has been known for decades to be a key neurotransmitter in the brain, a chemical that nerve cells use to communicate with each other. Until now, its role in the pancreas was unknown. The St. Mikeâ€™s study is the first to identify and describe GABAâ€™s importance in regulating the survival and function of pancreatic beta cells in mice.
Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, is characterized by the immune systemâ€™s destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas that make and secrete insulin. As a result, the body makes little or no insulin. The only conventional treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin injection, but insulin is not a cure as it does not prevent or reverse the loss of beta cells.
However, the St. Mikeâ€™s scientists have been able to reverse or prevent diabetes in mice by injecting them with GABA. The neurotransmitter works in the pancreas to regenerate insulin-producing beta cells and it acts on the immune system to stop the destruction of those cells. Until now, there has been no effective treatment that achieves both goals at the same time.
GABA and related therapies will have to be tested in human clinical trials before they can be considered as a new treatment for type 1 diabetes.
â€œGABA is the first agent to act by both protecting the insulin-producing cells from damage and by decreasing the bodyâ€™s immune reaction against these cells,â€ said Dr. Gary Lewis, incoming director of the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre and director of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Toronto.
â€œThe bodyâ€™s immune reaction against its own insulin-producing cells is responsible for most of the damage that leads to the development of type 1 diabetes. This exciting new observation may open up new avenues for the prevention and treatment of type 1 diabetes in humans,â€ he added.
Meantime, a separate effort to treat and cure type 1 diabetes has been launched by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It has created the Canadian Clinical Trial Network to speed the development of better treatments and cures for the disease. Supported by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, the network aims to accelerate the development and commercialization of treatments for type 1 diabetes.
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