According to results of a phase II clinical trial at the University of Texas Medical School, a low dose of oral interferon alpha can preserve pancreatic beta cell function in newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes patients. Interferons are proteins produced by the cells of the immune system in response to challenges like a virus or a tumor cell. They work by inhibiting viral replication in the host cell, activating natural killer cells, and increasing the activity of other immune system cells such as lymphocytes.
Staley Brod, MD, the trial’s principal investigator, noted in a university press release that interferon alpha “can extend the ‘honeymoon phase’ of the disease, allowing the body to still produce insulin from beta cells, which correlates with decreased complication rates.” The honeymoon phase is that initial period after diagnosis when beta cells may partially recover and control of blood sugar improves for a time.
During the clinical trial, 128 patients ranging in age from three to 25 years old were given one of three doses of interferon alpha-5,000 units, 30,000 units, or 0 units (a placebo)-every day for one year. The patients who received 5,000 units lost only 29 percent of their beta cell function during that time, compared to a 56 percent loss of function in the patients who received the placebo. Interestingly, the group that got 30,000 units daily lost 48 percent of their beta function after the year-long trial, more like the placebo group than the low-dose interferon alpha group.
Dr. Brod’s hypothesis is that autoimmune diseases such as type 1 are caused by “alpha interferon immunodeficiency.” Exactly how that works, however, is apparently not yet clear. It is known that when administered as drugs, interferons have antiviral and anti-oncogenic (anti-cancer) properties. In fact, interferons are often used in combination with chemotherapy and radiation in the treatment of certain cancers. Although its mechanism of action is still unknown, interferon beta has been used as an effective treatment for the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis.
Source: EurekAlert! University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston