TB vaccine may help diabetes patients produce insulin

Harvard University researchers are raising money to conduct an experiment on whether a long-used tuberculosis vaccine may also help reverse Type 1 diabetes and eliminate the life-long need for insulin injections.

Daily insulin injections are needed in Type 1 diabetes patients in order to control their blood sugar because their body doesn't produce the hormone, the result of an errant immune system that destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The vaccine, which has been used to vaccinate tuberculosis for 90 years, is called bacillus Calmette-Guerin, or BCG. The vaccine stimulates production of a protein that kills the insulin-attacking cells, according to Bloomberg.

Three million Americans live with Type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed during childhood. There is no cure for the disease.

A preliminary trial showed that two of the three patients given BCG had renewed insulin production. Researchers hope to yield more substantial results in three-to-five years.

Denise Faustman, the director of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital's immunobiology laboratory led the study.

"We think this can be taken all the way to the market and that is what we are trying to do," Faustman said, Bloomberg reports.

The vaccine, which is also approved to fight bladder cancer, is a weakened for of the tuberculosis bacteria that stimulates TNF production. More TNF allows the body to attack those harmful immune cells while leaving the rest of the body's defenses intact. The vaccine is approved for tuberculoses by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but isn't often recommended for use in the U.S.

In the study, three patients were given the BCG vaccine and then monitored for 20 weeks. In two of the three patients, the death of insulin-harming cells increased and C-peptide levels rose as well, suggesting the production of insulin.

"These patients have been told their pancreases were dead," Faustman said, Bloomberg reports. "We can take those people, give them a very low dose twice and see their pancreases kick in and start to make small amounts of insulin."

Researchers are also looking into whether the vaccine's ability to raise TNF levels could also be used to treat multiple sclerosis. Faustman said that researchers in Italy found that the vaccine could prevent progressions of brain lesions in patients with advanced stages of MS.