Since the days of Banting and Best almost a century ago, Canadian scientists have played an important role in authoring the book on diabetes research. And the newest chapter is a doozy.

Dr. Pere Santamaria and his team at the University of Calgary have developed a new treatment technology using nanoparticles, thousands of times smaller in diameter than a typical cell, which are coated with disease-relevant immune proteins, structured to interact with the immune system lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) that cause Type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

Dr. Santamaria calls the discovery serendipitous. “We were originally using these nanoparticles for a different — non-therapeutic — purpose but saw unexpected, and highly counterintuitive, therapeutic effects,” he explains. “They made no sense and we almost swept the project under the carpet because we felt it could become a ‘red herring.’ But then we got curious.”

Further research has provided very good evidence that these nanoparticles can create permanent changes in the immune system without side effects. “When this nanomedicine goes into the bloodstream it finds, like a needle in a haystack, some of the specific lymphocytes that want to attack the body and then converts them into lymphocytes that now want to put the brakes on the disease process,” says Dr. Santamaria. “In addition, the treatment makes these lymphocytes multiply, thus generating a small army of disease-suppressor lymphocytes.”

As a disease-modifying treatment, rather than an ongoing therapy, this is something really new in the world of diabetes. “There is the potential for the reversal of diseases like Type 1 diabetes,” says Dr. Santamaria. “In mice the therapeutic effects are not only specific and effective, but also sustained. These nanomedicines offer what may be the ideal treatment for autoimmune diseases.”

As this new nanomedicine begins to move into its first human clinical trials, there is real hope for a revolution in diabetes treatment, not just from Dr. Santamaria’s team, but also from other Canadian researchers who will build on his work to write the next chapter.