Health Watch: Can an old drug prevent Type 1 diabetes?

DENVER, Colo. -- Less than ten percent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. Patients with type 1 must take insulin to stay alive and there's been no way to prevent the disease. Now, for the first time, researchers say there may be a way to prevent or delay the disease in some people with a genetic risk.

Lisa Meyers wears an insulin pump and checks her blood sugar several times a day to keep her type 1 diabetes in check.

Meyers said, "It's a 24/7 thing. It's just a constant thought about blood sugar and how it relates to what I'm gonna do."

She's a diabetes educator and helps patients navigate the disease. It's a job she wishes she didn't have.

"If other people could be prevented from having to live this ... that, to me, is a joy," Meyers said.

Aaron Michels, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics & Medicine and Frieda and George S. Eisenbarth Clinical Immunology Endowed Chair at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus says doctors are better than ever at predicting who will develop type 1 diabetes.

"If a disease can be predicted, it really should be prevented," Dr. Michels said.

About 60 percent of patients have a gene called HLADQ8. In a years-long search for a way to block that gene, Dr. Michels found promise in an unlikely place, a decades-old blood pressure drug called methyldopa.

"It blocked DQ8. It blocked its function," said Dr. Michels.

That means the drug could delay the diagnosis, or even prevent it altogether. If the research pans out in bigger trials, it will be a major milestone.

Dr. Michels said, "Living with diabetes is a lot of work. And it's a lot of work that doesn't go away."

For Dr. Michels, it's personal. He's been living with type 1 diabetes for 26 years.

"Things really do need to be done to lessen the burden for patients and their families," Dr. Michels shared.

His oldest daughter has it too.

"Any amount of time we can have a child and their family not have to deal with those burdens of type 1 diabetes would be fantastic," Dr. Michels told Ivanhoe.

People with the DQ8 gene are about ten-times more likely to develop type 1 diabetes. A larger clinical trial will start enrolling patients in the next couple of months. People with a relative with type 1 diabetes can get tested for the DQ8 gene. If they have it, they may be a candidate to enroll in the trial.