The Future of Diabetes

Breakthroughs on the research horizon… 

Promising lines of research to advance diabetes therapy include developing an effective vaccine, using stem cells to grow insulin-making beta cells, and suppressing a hormone call glucagon. A number of devices are also in development to better control blood sugar levels.  


In vaccine investigations, British researchers report that a common virus may trigger Type 1 diabetes by attacking insulin-making beta cells and causing an infection. They theorize that the resulting immune response may eventually lead to an inability to make insulin. Based on this concept, a vaccine that prevents the virus infection might also prevent the diabetes that results.  In another example, Harvard research suggests that a widely-used tuberculosis vaccine may be useful in treating Type 1 diabetes by acting on the immune response that kills beta cells. In early studies, Type 1 diabetic mice began to produce their own insulin after treatment with the vaccine.

Stem Cells and Gene Therapy

A variety of strategies use stem cells to grow insulin-making beta cells. Generating new beta cells is only half the solution to the diabetes puzzle, however. The immune system malfunction that kills beta cells must be corrected also, or else the new, stem-cell generated beta cells will be destroyed as well.  

Glucagon Suppression

The hormone glucagon is produced in the pancreas and released when blood sugar levels are low. In Type 1 diabetics, glucagon levels are inappropriately high and cause the liver to release excessive amounts of glucose into the bloodstream. A 2011 study   reported that suppressing the action of glucagon made insulin unnecessary to control blood sugar levels. These early findings suggest that blocking the action of glucagon might restore normal glucose tolerance. 


There are also advances in devices that help control diabetes. Numerous companies are working to develop a continuous glucose monitor that works in conjunction with an insulin pump. Based on data from the monitor, the pump would automatically give the appropriate dose of insulin.

NHS, 2009. Vaccine could stop diabetes
The New Scientist, vol 203, issue 2725, Sept 9, 2009. Roger Highfield interview: Finding a diabetes cure.
Bloomberg, 8/9/2012. "Diabetes May Be Reversed by Long-Used Vaccine
WebMD, Can TB Vaccine Stop Type 1 Diabetes? Available at, tb-vaccine-stop-type-1-diabetes
Diabetes, Feb 2011; 60(2):391-7). R Unger and Y Lee, Glucagon receptor knockout prevents insulin-deficient type 1 diabetes in mice. 

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