The new research — co-authored by Dr. Aaron Michels, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora — will be published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
This is believed to be down to an autoimmune process, wherein the immune cells mistakingly attack and destroy beta cells.
While the exact causes of type 1 diabetes remain a mystery, Dr. Michels and team note that around 60 percent of those who are at risk of the condition possess a molecule called DQ8 — which previous research has linked to the onset of type 1 diabetes.
With this in mind, the researchers speculate that blocking the DQ8 molecule could be one way of preventing type 1 diabetes. In their latest study, they identified an existing drug that could do just that.
The researchers came to their findings by using a "supercomputer" to analyze every small molecule drug that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Specifically, they investigated whether any of these medications could target and inhibit the DQ8 molecule. They found one that hit the mark: a drug called methyldopa, which is most often prescribed to treat high blood pressure, or hypertension.
The study revealed that — as well as inhibiting DQ8 — methyldopa did not interfere with the immune functioning of cells. The latter point is one of the downfalls of immunosuppressant medications, which have also been investigated for the prevention and treatment of type 1 diabetes.
The researchers confirmed their findings in mice, as well as in a clinical trial of 20 individuals with type 1 diabetes.
According to the scientists, these findings may have "significant implications" for the prevention and treatment of type 1 diabetes.
"This is the first personalized treatment for type 1 diabetes prevention," explains Dr. Michels.
"With this drug, we can potentially prevent up to 60 percent of type 1 diabetes in those at risk for the disease. This is very significant development."
Dr. Aaron Michels
Study co-author David Ostrov, Ph.D., of the University of Florida in Gainesville, adds that the study may even open the door to new treatments for other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and lupus.
A larger clinical trial of methyldopa for the prevention and treatment of type 1 diabetes — to be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — is set to start this spring.