Encouraging results in a small study, with a new experimental treatment, promises help for certain diabetics to retain some ability to make their own insulin.
This would potentially lessen their need for injections of the hormone to regulate blood sugar levels.
The experiment did however raise some safety concerns as most who received the treatment had side effects.
Although the researchers say these side effects were temporary they did admit they might increase the risk of a blood disorder later on.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which paid for the study, nevertheless considered the results encouraging enough to plan future large-scale studies.
Dr. Richard Insel, the foundation's executive vice president for research, says that there few instances where an autoimmune disease is stopped in its tracks, and the results are very promising.
There are more than 18 million people in the United State with diabetes, and most have Type 2, which is linked to obesity and occurs when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it makes.
The other 5% to 10% of diabetics who have Type 1, were involved in the study.
Type 1 occurs when the body's immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, and it then must be given through shots or a pump.
Researchers led by Dr. Lucienne Chatenoud of Necker Hospital in Paris tested the novel approach on 80 newly diagnosed diabetics who still had some insulin function left. The patients were given an experimental drug to prevent the immune system attack.
In the study half of the patients received the drug, and the other half got a dummy drug for a week after they were diagnosed as diabetics. Both groups also got at least three insulin shots a day to control blood sugar.
After 18 months, the placebo group lost, on average, one-third of its insulin production ability and needed 50% more insulin in shots to regulate blood sugar.
The group that received the drug, on the other hand, lowered insulin dependence by 12% and increased insulin-making capability.
The drug appeared to work best in patients who still had about half of their insulin function.
On the downside almost all the people who took the drug had symptoms of mononucleosis, a white blood cell disorder caused by a virus, and flu-like symptoms, including fever and headache.
Although the researchers say the side effects were minor and short-lived, Dr. Ake Lernmark, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, says that more research is needed to address the drug's safety.
He also noted that the drug's benefits might be limited in patients who already have greater insulin function than typical Type 1 patients as most Type 1 diabetics are diagnosed after they have already lost 90% of their insulin-making ability.
The study results are published in the June 23 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
For more information, go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Web site: www.jdrf.org