FRIDAY, May 11, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Treatment with hyperbaric oxygen therapy helped prevent or slow the progression of type 1 diabetes in mice, according to new research.
It is too early to say if the results might apply to humans, however.
In mice, the treatment caused changes in the immune system's response to newly developing diabetes, and reduced the risk of diabetes between 20 and 40 percent. In the mice that still developed diabetes, the hyperbaric therapy delayed disease progression, the investigators found.
"Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a relatively non-harmful way of enhancing oxygen delivery to the tissues," said the study's senior author, Dr. Antonello Pileggi, director of the preclinical cell processing and translational models program at the Diabetes Research Institute of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"We were able to suppress the transfer of the disease (in mice) before the onset of the disease. After diabetes had occurred, the efficacy [of hyperbaric therapy] was much less," said Pileggi. He said that combining hyperbaric therapy with medications might enhance the effectiveness of both treatments.
Results of this study, released online May 7, will be published in the July print issue of Diabetes.
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the pancreas called beta cells. Beta cells produce the hormone insulin that allows your body to metabolize carbohydrates from food, providing fuel for energy. People with type 1 diabetes must replace the lost insulin through multiple daily injections or a pump.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy -- commonly used to treat scuba divers who develop "the bends" from rising to the surface too quickly -- is delivered in a special pressurized chamber. The pressure inside the chamber is about two and half times greater than the normal pressure in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This puts more oxygen in your blood. Hyperbaric therapy can also be used to treat bone infections, burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, and wounds that aren't healing well, such as ulcers in people with diabetes. Currently, not very many hospitals offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
For the current research, Pileggi and his colleagues used two types of mice. One type develops diabetes spontaneously. It's not exactly the same as type 1 diabetes in humans, but it is very similar, and Pileggi said "it's a good surrogate of type 1." And, the second type doesn't develop diabetes on its own, but the researchers induced diabetes.
In the mice that spontaneously develop diabetes that received hyperbaric therapy, the risk of developing diabetes was reduced by 20 percent. In the mice with induced diabetes, the treatment reduced the risk of diabetes by 40 percent, according to the study. In the mice that still developed diabetes in both groups, treatment with hyperbaric therapy helped delay the onset or progression of the disease.
Pileggi said that the researchers aren't yet clear exactly how hyperbaric therapy prevents or slows the disease, but it's clear the therapy has positive effects on the immune system.
The researchers were also pleasantly surprised to see that the therapy caused a significant increase in creation of new beta cells. "If you can reeducate immune cells and enhance the beta cell mass, that's an ideal situation. But, it's not a silver bullet for diabetes. It could be an adjuvant to other therapies," said Pileggi.
Pileggi said the researchers will test combination treatments but added that it's too soon to guess when such a treatment might be tried in humans.
Another expert said any application to humans is years away.
"This is a novel idea from a good research group. But, while the mouse model is good to study, it doesn't mean that what is affected in mice will be affected in men," said Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the clinical diabetes center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Also, it would be difficult to choose who would receive such a therapy, he said, because there isn't a reliable test to determine who will develop type 1 diabetes. There are tests for the antibodies present in type 1, but some people who never develop diabetes have those same antibodies.
"To translate this research to humans would require many more steps," said Zonszein.
Learn more about type 1 diabetes from the American Diabetes Association.