Diabetes is a disease that is on the rise in America. Currently there are an estimated 20 million individuals that suffer from one of the forms of this disease, though it's also estimated that over 6 million of that number are unaware they have the disease.
Diabetes is marked by the body's inability to process insulin, a hormone that is necessary for the body to convert sugars into energy. There are two main forms of the disease. Type 1 diabetes is the less common and more dangerous form of the disease where the body is simply incapable of processing insulin. It is an autoimmune disease, wherein the body's T cells attack the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce insulin. The only current treatment for this form of the disease is to artificially introduce insulin into the body via injection. Type 2 diabetes is far more common and is marked by the body being less able (rather than unable) to process insulin. This form can be combated with dietary and lifestyle changes, but it can easily progress to the point where insulin injections are required.
Matthias von Herrath, M.D., has devoted his career to studying Type 1 diabetes, and has become an internationally recognized expert on the disease. Though diabetes is a treatable disease, the insulin injection process is taxing on patients. Diabetes also has many myriad effects outside of the inability to produce insulin, largely related to the vascular system. Elevated sugar levels in the bloodstream tax the vascular system, and over time this has disastrous effects for the human body. Diabetes patients will frequently develop problems with their vision, kidneys, and heart and circulation. Type 1 diabetes shortens and complicates lifespans for all those it affects.
Von Herrath's research efforts have been focused recently several distinctly promising areas. The first deals with focusing on combined therapy techniques to battle diabetes. Dr. von Herrath uncovered that using a proinsulin peptide in conjunction with an anti-CD3 antibody intended to dampen the autoimmune response helped the body to boost the efficacy of both treatments, while cutting down on the unwanted side effects of each. In mouse models, this combined therapy was able to completely halt the advance of recent on-set diabetes.
The lab is also examining what is known as the "honeymoon phase" for diabetes. After diagnosis and treatment begins, the body's blood sugar levels will normalize temporarily and the pancreas can "relax". The body is then able to function at an almost normal level for a short period of time before the insulin-producing beta cells are once again destroyed and the honeymoon phase ends. By studying how this phase is caused and seeking methods to prolong it, the lab hopes to unlock more secrets to controlling diabetes.
Another novel method of looking at diabetes that the lab is exploring may also impact the way autoimmune disease in general is treated. The lab found that certain viral infections could trigger or dampen the autoimmune response in diabetic cases. By exploring how the body reacts to viral infections, researchers may be able to coax the body into producing desired immune cells and responses, which can help lessen and even stop an autoimmune response. Viral mechanisms are highly complex and have evolved over millions of years, so harnessing this method could prove extremely effective.
The lab has also developed a unique methodology for studying cells that they hope will help boost research efforts. They can now perform live imaging of beta cells. The ability to view these cells functioning in a live environment, rather than a lab-replicated one, is extremely helpful, as it helps to provide more accurate and detailed views of how the immune system. The ability to view this live imaging helps to take lab benchwork past the realm of theoretical results.