When you hear the word "vaccine," you naturally might think of infectious diseases. For more than 200 years, vaccination has been aimed at preventing a variety of pathogens by training the immune system to be ready for an attack. This concept has been effective at preventing millions of illnesses and is responsible for the eradication of one of humanity's worst scourges, smallpox.
Vaccination is a relatively straightforward process with one aim. Yet, for years, researchers have seen certain vaccines perform double duty. Not only is the initial infection halted, but chronic conditions associated with prior infection — known as sequelae — can be prevented as well.
There are several examples of these added benefits behind vaccines. For example, the polio vaccine protects against a devastating neurological disorder aptly named post-polio syndrome. The measles vaccine prevents a slow, progressive, and ultimately fatal neurological condition known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis that occurs years after the usual symptoms. The most recent addition has been the Human Papillomavirus Virus vaccine, which minimizes the chances for cervical and other cancers.
Now there appears to be hope for a new addition to the list, thanks to a team of Finnish and Swedish researchers. They have identified a vaccine candidate with the potential to ward off one of the most troubling chronic diseases, Type 1 diabetes. Their results reveal we may one day have a means to protect individuals who are most at risk from suffering from this condition.
While this may be years away, this new direction may offer hope to those who suffer.
The reasoning for this line of research comes from data known for more than half a century. Researchers have been investigating a link between this form of diabetes and a virus known as coxsackievirus B1, or CB1. The virus is known to be a significant pathogen in children and can be life-threatening to infants.
Usually, an infection causes only mild symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, and fatigue. But life-threatening problems can arise such as encephalitis, enlarged heart and hepatitis.
For children at risk for Type 1 diabetes, however, there appears to be another complication. Studies have identified a link between a prior CB1 infection and the onset of disease. Although the exact mechanism continues to be a matter for debate, enough evidence exists to suggest this virus may be a trigger in the initiation of diabetes.
Because this was a completely new avenue for research, the team worked with mice. They first used a type of mouse known as the non-obese diabetic mouse, or NOD for short. The animal is prone to developing Type 1 diabetes as well as CB1 infection and was the perfect model to test the hypothesis.
The first part of the experimentation involved developing an appropriate vaccine against CB1. They did this by growing the virus in the lab and then killing it using a disinfectant known as formaldehyde. The procedure has been around for close to a century and continues to be used to this day to ensure vaccines are safe when used.
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At this point, the mice were given the vaccine in the hopes of seeing whether it would protect the animals from infection. In all cases, the animals produced a significant immune response and prevented the virus from spreading throughout the body. This suggested any mechanism leading to diabetes may be stopped in its tracks.
Then came the critical test. The team wanted to find out if they could stop diabetes with the vaccine. They switched the mice to one that rapidly develops diabetes after a viral infection. It's known officially as the suppressors-of-cytokine-signalling transgenic mouse, which is commonly referred to as SOCS1-tg. If the group was correct, the vaccine would leave these animals healthy even after CB1 infection.
When the results came back, the team was pleased to see no changes in the vaccinated mice compared to healthy ones. Looking inside the body the researchers found, just as with the NOD mice, there were no signs of CB1 in the pancreas. The vaccine had worked to prevent the infection and the onset of diabetes.
The results of this study demonstrate the potential use for vaccines in helping to prevent Type 1 diabetes. This opens the door to further research, which may lead to the development of vaccine candidates for testing in humans. While this may be years away, this new direction may offer hope to those who suffer.
There may be another benefit to developing a CB1 vaccine apart from protecting against diabetes. In light of the symptoms caused by the virus during normal infection, the use of vaccination to protect newborns and children may be well worth the time, effort, and money. After all, as we learned with other diseases, once a vaccine is available, an entire population may benefit.
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