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The rotavirus (RV) vaccine could have a surprising off-target effect: protecting against type 1 diabetes. New cases of the autoimmune condition decreased among Australian children after the vaccine was introduced, according to an analysis recently published in JAMA Pediatrics. It’s the first epidemiological evidence of the association.
There’s currently no way to prevent type 1 diabetes. Scientists think unknown environmental exposures trigger the condition in genetically predisposed people. Finding 1 of those triggers could lend important insight into what causes type 1 diabetes and how to prevent it.
This wasn’t a shot in the dark. The authors previously linked rotavirus infection—the most common cause of gastroenteritis in children—to diabetes-associated antibodies in genetically susceptible kids. In mice, they found that the virus triggers pancreatic cell death and transient hyperglycemia. A rotavirus surface protein called VP7 structurally resembles pancreatic β-cell autoantigens involved in the development of type 1 diabetes, and this so-called molecular mimicry could confuse the immune system into launching an attack.
It’s therefore plausible that a vaccine against rotavirus infection could also protect against type 1 diabetes. On the other hand, such molecular mimicry might suggest that the vaccine could promote the condition.