Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital announced breakthrough findings Thursday for people living with Type 1 diabetes.
According to the new research published in the journal npj Vaccines, a common vaccine for tuberculosis (the bacillus Calmette-Guérrin, or BCG, vaccine) could reverse advanced cases of the disease by permanently lowering blood sugar levels.
Lead researcher Denise Faustman and her team examined data on 282 individuals, 52 of whom had Type 1 diabetes and participated in the BCG clinical trials and 230 of whom contributed blood samples.
Those participating in the clinical trials (average disease duration of 19 years) were given the vaccine twice four weeks apart and then studied for about eight years following treatment.
Regular monitoring throughout the eight-year study found that HbA1c levels of individuals receiving the vaccine dropped by more than 10 percent at the three-year mark and by more than 18 percent after four years of treatment. These levels reached near-normal figures five years after treatment.
HbA1c refers to glycated hemoglobin, which develops when hemoglobin, the red blood cell protein that carries oxygen throughout the body, is combined with glucose in the blood.
Participants treated with BCG were found to have an average HbA1c of 6.65 four years later. The threshold for diabetes diagnosis is close to an HbA1c of 6.5.
"If they get vaccinated twice, there's a delay. But then, after about 3.5 years, their blood sugars come down, not to the total normal range, but near normal range," Faustman told ABC affiliate WCVB.
Individuals in that near normal range have dramatically reduced risk of associated complications, such as renal disease, heart disease and blindness.
The vaccine, according to the researchers, helps the body boost production of tumor necrosis factor, a hormone especially beneficial to Type 1 diabetics.
In 2001, Faustman's team first reported that inducing TNF production may cure Type 1 diabetes in mice, “but since TNF dosing is toxic in humans, clinical trials have utilized BCG for its ability to elevate TNF levels safely,” Medical Xpress reported.
The MGH researchers also noted that BCG may reduce blood sugar elevations in mice caused by non-autoimmune attacks. This raises the possibility that the vaccines may even be beneficial against Type 2 diabetes.
Faustman is also expected to present five-year follow-up results of a separate group of BCG clinical trial participants at the 78th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, June 23.
The researchers plan to replicate these findings with another trial currently underway.
Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In Type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas are “mistakenly attacked and destroyed by the immune system,” according to Medical News Today.
And in Type 2, the most common category of diabetes accounting for 90-95 percent of all cases, the body’s cells either stop responding to insulin or the beta cells can’t produce enough of the hormone.
People suffering from either type of the disease have blood sugar levels that can become too high. This condition is called hyperglycemia and can lead to kidney disease, heart disease and more if it’s not properly controlled or treated.