Scientists working at St Louis University (SLU) have demonstrated the ability to prevent type 1 diabetes in mice by focusing on a particular immune cell whose properties weren't entirely clear. They discovered that impeding the development of this cell they could in fact stop the onset of the disease.

The lack of insulin production that defines type 1 diabetes and makes blood-sugar levels difficult to manage is driven by the body's immune system. A couple of culprits are already known to scientists in the form of two "T-cells", which have a hand in the demise of the pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin.

But the team at SLU were looking to explore the role that a third immune cell called TH17plays in this process. The team is hopeful that this cell could hold the key to preventing the disease from developing altogether, rather than just treating its symptoms.

Through its research, the team established that the TH17 cells depended greatly on two nuclear receptors for their development. Using a compound called SR1001, the scientists were able to block the two receptors, which in turn prevented the immune cells from attacking the insulin-producing cells.

"None of the animals on the treatment developed diabetes even when we started treatment after significant beta cell damage had already occurred," says Thomas Burris, chair of pharmacological and physiological science at SLU. "We believe this type of treatment would slow the progression of type I diabetes in people or potentially even eliminate the need for insulin therapy."

The researchers say that their findings confirm that the TH17 cells are integral to the development of type 1 diabetes, claiming that using drugs to target them could offer new treatments for the disease.

The research findings were published in the journal Endocrinology.