Aug. 26 (UPI) -- Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology said Wednesday that they might have found a way to prevent people from developing Type 1 diabetes.
They described the process, called neuroimmunology, in a study using mice with the disease published by the journal Science Advances.
The approach effectively blocks nerve signals that cause the body's immune system to attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, they said.
"There are companies that have made devices that can influence nerve function locally by using electrical [impulses] acting on nerves," study co-author Dr. Matthias von Herrath, a professor at the institute, told UPI.
These and other potential preventative treatments based on the findings are several years away from being used, though, he said.
Roughly 1.3 million American adults have Type 1 diabetes, but that figure is expected to increase to 5 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In people with the disease, the body's own immune cells target cell clusters in the pancreas called islets, which house insulin-producing beta cells, and attack them, killing off some while leaving others untouched, von Herrath said.
No one knows what triggers this attack, but it does enough damage to affect insulin production, making it difficult for the body to process sugar, causing levels to rise in the blood, he said.
Although environmental and genetic risk factors exist for Type 1 diabetes, it seems to strike at random, with some research suggesting that the attacks on beta cells could be caused by differences in blood flow or a virus, according to von Herrath.
Now, he and his team believe the nervous system in people with the disease might be driving this "patchy" cell die-off.
To test the theory, they used a mouse model that can be experimentally induced to have beta cell death. They "denervated" the mice, either surgically or through use of a neurotoxin or a pharmacological agent, to block most of the sympathetic nerve signals to the pancreas.
Blocking the nerve signals protected mice from beta cell death, which suggests that these areas may be innervated by nerves that branch out symmetrically through the body, according to the researchers.
More work needs to be done before this method can be tested in people, von Herrath told UPI.
Doctors would first need a reliable way to identify patients at risk of Type 1 diabetes onset. Once identified, they could be treated either through electrostimulation or drugs to block the nerve signals, he said.
"Innervation of organs regulates whether immune system attacks occur regionally within the organ, thus explaining the devlopment of autoimmune diseases, including their often symmetrical and/or patchy nature," von Herrath said.