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Study may lead to diabetes vaccine

Hopes of developing a diabetes vaccine have been raised by a landmark discovery linking a common gastric virus with the disease

Hopes of developing a diabetes vaccine have been raised by a landmark discovery linking a common gastric virus with the disease.

Two separate teams of British researchers have found strong evidence that enterovirus infection can trigger the immune reaction which leads to insulin-dependent diabetes. There was also a suggestion that viral infection may be involved in Type II diabetes, although how is not clear.

Professor Noel Morgan, from the Peninsula Medical School, which was established as a partnership between the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and the NHS in Devon and Cornwall on August 1 2000, said: "We are genuinely excited by the findings of our study. This is the first time that scientists have been able to provide such extensive evidence for the relationship between enteroviral infection of the beta cells and the development of Type II diabetes.

"The next stages of research – to identify which enteroviruses are involved, how the beta cells are changed by infection and the ultimate goal to develop an effective vaccine – will lead to findings which we hope will drastically reduce the number of people around the world who develop Type I diabetes, and potentially Type II diabetes as well."

Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK said: "This research is a big step forward in our understanding of potential triggers for Type I diabetes. We've known for some time that Type I diabetes cannot be explained by genetics alone and that other environmental triggers may also play a part.

"This research has identified the presence of a type of virus in pancreatic beta cells of a proportion of people who had Type I diabetes that appears to be rare in people without the condition."

The virus family, which includes more than 100 different strains, can cause vomiting and diarrhoea but often produces no symptoms. By attacking insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, it is thought the viruses set off an immune response that spins out of control, leading to Type I diabetes.

The disease occurs when pancreatic beta cells are destroyed by the body's immune system. Developing a vaccine against the viruses could potentially prevent this happening, researchers believe. However, more work is needed to identify which strains of enterovirus should be targeted.

Type I diabetes affects around 300,000 people in the UK, including 20,000 children under the age of 15. Having lost their beta cells, patients must rely on insulin injections to regulate their blood sugar and stay alive. A further 2.2 million people are known to suffer from Type II diabetes, which is not an autoimmune disease but related to lifestyle.

The research was reported in the European diabetes journal Diabetologia.

9th March 2009

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