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Could specialised medicinal diets prevent Type 1 diabetes?

28 March 2017

Food that releases large amounts of specific nutrients, called acetate and butyrate, protected mice from developing Type 1 diabetes, a new study showed.

It’s thought that the nutrients were able to regulate the immune system and prevent the attack against the pancreas.

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system goes rogue and starts attacking insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

How do acetate and butyrate work?

Immune cells called ‘self-reactive T cells’ carry out the attack on the pancreas. Researchers found that acetate could reduce the number of self-reactive T cells attacking the pancreas.

Another type of immune cell, called ‘regulatory T cells’, keep the immune system in check and make sure it only attacks foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. The research team showed that butyrate was able to help regulatory T cells work.

Helpful gut bacteria

Acetate and butyrate are actually produced by bacteria living in our gut. They can turn fibre that we eat into nutrients.

In this study, the researchers used specialised foods to help the gut bacteria in mice make lots of acetate and butyrate. They then looked at whether these higher levels could help to prevent Type 1 diabetes.

Scientists believe that gut bacteria might play a role in the development of conditions like Type 1 diabetes, and this study sheds some light on why gut bacteria are important.

Looking to the future

Since nutrients appear to influence the immune system, researchers hope that nutrient-based approaches could be developed in the future to treat or prevent Type 1 diabetes.

Dr Emily Burns, Research Communications Manager at Diabetes UK, said:

“The idea that a special medicinal diet could help to regulate the immune system and prevent Type 1 diabetes from developing is interesting, but this research is at a very early stage. We won’t know how effective this approach could be in people at risk of Type 1 diabetes until research moves into human clinical trials.

What we currently know is that Type 1 diabetes is not linked to diet or lifestyle and it can’t be prevented. Diabetes UK is funding a great deal of research to find ways to stop the immune attack against the pancreas, in order to prevent Type 1 diabetes in the future.”

More science?

In this study scientists gave mice that develop Type 1 diabetes either normal or specialised food, which was designed to be turned into acetate and butyrate by gut bacteria. Mice were on specialised diets for five weeks and the researchers looked at how long it took for them to develop Type 1 diabetes.

They also measured the immune attack against the pancreas, to understand why acetate and butyrate might be beneficial, and assessed how the specialised diets affected bacteria in the gut.

The team believe that the nutrients might work in different ways, as they were both needed to see the improvements.

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