A new national study offers hope for people at risk of contracting diabetes in the form of a pill that could ward off the disease.
Among the volunteers - adults and children are being sought - is little Jill Johnson. The Lake Stevens 4-year-old is at risk for developing a serious form of diabetes, so her parents signed her up at the University of Washington to help determine whether oral consumption of insulin will fend off the disease.
The UW Medical Center is one of 10 research institutions working with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., on the study, which formally began Tuesday.
Studies in diabetic animals suggest eating insulin to prevent the disease holds significant promise.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Jill’s mother, Nancy Johnson.
Jill’s brother, Peter, 10, already has Type 1 diabetes, Mrs. Johnson said.
In that form of diabetes, the immune system attacks insulinproducing cells in the pancreas. The early-onset disease, which accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of all diabetes cases, can strike both children and adults.
Scientists only recently discovered that Type 1 is caused by a defect in the immune system.
Trying to prevent the disease through “oral tolerization” is still unproven in humans and somewhat controversial, said Dr. Carla Greenbaum, lead investigator for the University of Washington portion of the national study. The theory is based on the observation that the body’s immune system somehow learns not to react to the things people eat.
The approach was first described in the 1940s, Greenbaum said. But long before that, American Indians and others had been eating portions of toxic plants and other substances to stimulate the body’s natural protective mechanisms, she said.
Nobody knows exactly how ingesting insulin prevents onset of diabetes because the insulin is digested along with everything else that’s eaten, Greenbaum said.
“But somehow the immune system says, ‘We need to not react to this,”’ Greenbaum said. “Animal data clearly show that feeding insulin can prevent or delay onset of diabetes.”
Dr. Jerry Palmer, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and chief of endocrinology and metabolism at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Seattle, is one of the scientists who showed the link between the immune system and insulin-producing cells.
Palmer’s lab is assisting with Greenbaum’s study on oral tolerization.
“There’s no question it works in animals,” he said. “This is a different approach than we take in many other therapies, where we just try to block or destroy part of the immune system. With this, we’re stimulating the immune system to regulate itself.”
The oral insulin study is the second phase of an NIH-sponsored research project started in 1994.
xxxx VOLUNTEERS People under 45 who have relatives with diabetes and are interested in volunteering for the study can call the University of Washington at (206) 543-4561.