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Expert comment on new study that claims viruses may trigger both type 1 and type 2 diabetes because they contain proteins that mimic insulin

Scientists in America claim they have identified four viruses that can produce insulin-like hormones that are active on human cells. The discovery could create new possibilities for revealing biological mechanisms that may cause diabetes or cancer. Two University of Warwick experts comment on this new study.

"This study brings together two aspects of our knowledge of auto-immune disease , as it relates to Type-1 diabetes, namely that the body can mistake one of its own molecules (self) for a foreign molecule, and that viruses may well be the source of such foreign proteins. We have known for some time that viral infections can lead to auto-immune diseases.

"However, such autoimmunity would be expected to be most marked when the self-protein being mimicked is exposed on the cell surface, thus resulting in cell destruction when the auto-immune response takes hold. This study raises the question whether mistaking the insulin- or IGF1-like proteins resident within certain viruses may also induce an auto-immune response even though insulin and IGF-1 are secreted.

"It is much easier to study virally produced proteins, so the ground-breaking observation that some viruses contain insulin-mimicking peptides should lead to relatively rapid advance in determining whether such molecules can act as inducers of auto-immune disease, and whether molecular differences from the physiological molecules found in humans may suggest directions in which the synthesis/modification of therapeutic preparations could be adopted by the pharmaceutical industry."

Victor Zammit, Professor of Metabolic Biochemistry, Warwick Medical School

"First it was a chemical in the spit of the Gila Monster providing new diabetes drugs, and now it seems like the perennial enemy of doctors and patients alike - The Virus - might be giving us new weapons to fight the burgeoning epidemic of diabetes viruses work like spies, invading a cell, and using the cell's own machinery to make more viruses. But now research is suggesting, like something out of a James Bond movie, we might be able to make those same viruses turn traitor and work for us, manufacturing a chemical very similar to the insulin diabetics need.

"This paper has also suggested that rather than merely having potential for diabetes treatments, there might also be a role for viruses in causing cancer, which we might also be able to convince not to be our enemies. Like gadgets in a James Bond movie, this paper is teasing at what the future of endocrinology and virology might hold. Unfortunately just as the spy’s gadgets are a fantasy, potential treatments from this research are also in the realm of fiction - at the moment! But you can guarantee that people far smarter than Q are now going to be working flat out to make these viral derived treatments a reality - and that’s actually more exciting than a flying car!"

Dr James Gill, Warwick Medical School

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Nicola Jones, Media Relations Manager University of Warwick
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