What is Gleevec?

Gleevec is being studied as a therapy for type 1 diabetes (T1D).

The research study aims to determine if Gleevec can slow or stop the autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in those who are newly diagnosed with T1D. Based on previous observations in animals and people, study doctors believe that Gleevec may function in several different ways to benefit people with diabetes.

It may have direct effects on:

  • the immune system
  • the insulin-producing beta cells themselves
  • insulin sensitivity – improving the way the body responds to insulin

When a person has an autoimmune disease – such as T1D, rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease – the body’s immune system attacks their own healthy cells and tissues. For T1D, the goal is to find a therapy that can be taken for a limited period of time that will fundamentally change the autoimmune response so that ongoing immune therapy is not necessary for the body to be able to preserve and make its own insulin-producing beta cells.

The benefit of beta cells

People recently diagnosed with T1D may still have an important functioning remnant of insulin-producing beta cells, and be able to make significant amounts of their own insulin. It has been shown that having these remaining beta cells results in significantly improved health outcomes than people who no longer have these beta cells, including:

  • Better overall blood sugar control
  • Lower average blood sugars
  • Fewer swings in blood sugars
  • Less risk for severe low blood sugars; and
  • Lower risk for diabetes complications

The immune system

Gleevec is the first drug developed in a class of medications called tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Tyrosine kinases deliver signals inside cells, and may lead to activation and communication with other players in the immune process.

Gleevec affects many different cell types in the immune system, including T cells, dendritic cells, monocytes, macrophages and mast cells. It may affect how the T cells make their way to the pancreas and subsequently attack the insulin-producing beta cells.

Beta cell health and insulin sensitivity

Gleevec may function in other important ways to help with diabetes. For those who are on Gleevec for other reasons and who happen to have type 2 diabetes, Gleevec has been observed to help improve sensitivity to insulin and improve blood sugar control. Gleevec may also have direct effects on beta cells: in animal models, it lowers the stress on beta cells, reduces their destruction, and improves their regeneration.

Can an anti-cancer drug stop type 1 diabetes?

Gleevec is the brand name of a drug called imatinib which is FDA-approved for children down to age 3 with chronic myeloid leukemia and other forms of cancer. That means it has been well studied for safety and effectiveness for these conditions. Repurposing drugs indicated for other diseases is one of the approaches to accelerating the delivery of new therapies to people with T1D.

Possible side effects of Gleevec

Side effects may include:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea or looser bowels
  • Muscle cramps or achiness
  • Fluid retention
  • Skin rash

About 30-50% of people taking the drug may experience these side effects. If they occur, they are most often experienced in the first few weeks of taking the drug, and then typically decrease over time. From past use in other patients, the study doctors have experience in minimizing or eliminating these possible problems by:

  • Using other medicines, if necessary, to help with side effects
  • Reducing or holding the study drug if needed until side effects resolve

From Gleevec’s use in cancer, the side effects are known to be more noticeable in those who are taking higher drug doses, and in those who are older and with more significant illness. For this study, we are using the lowest dose that has been shown in preliminary studies to benefit people with autoimmune conditions. In addition, we are carefully screening to ensure that participants have only T1D, without other significant medical conditions.

Study doctors are conducting this trial to determine if Gleevec may stop or slow down the destruction of beta cells, improving blood sugar control and outcomes for people recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Read About GleeT1D clinical research study and see how you can get involved.