A protein produced by the body's immune cells has the potential to stop and even reverse the development of immune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, researchers have found.

The protein, named CD52, is produced within some of the body's immune cells (T cells) and plays a dominant role in suppressing immune activity in the early stages of the immune system's response. This discovery could result in treatment for, or prevention of, a number of immune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, which the researchers focused their study on, but also for multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, according to a press release.

"Immune suppression by CD52 is a previously undiscovered mechanism that the body uses to regulate itself and protect itself against excessive or damaging immune responses," Len Harrison, a professor at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's Moelcular Medicine division, said. "We are excited about the prospect of developing this discovery to clinical trials as soon as possible to see if CD52 can be used to prevent and treat type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases."

Autoimmune diseases develop when the immune system confuses healthy body tissue for an antigen and mistakenly attacks and destroys the tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Harrison and his team of researchers examined the effects of CD52 in a preclinical model of type 1 diabetes. They found that a specialized group of T cells had, or produced CD52, and that removal of the cells led to a rapid development of diabetes. Harrison and his team concluded that these cells release CD52 in order to "dampen the activity of other T cells and prevent uncontrolled immune responses. The cells act as an early 'braking' mechanism."

Harrison hopes that CD52 will ultimately prevent or cure type 1 diabetes, adding that it's a "life-long disease."

"In animal models we can prevent and cure type 1 diabetes," he said in the release. "I am hopeful that these results will be translatable into humans, hopefully in the not-too-distant future."

Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in children and young adults whose bodies don't produce insulin, the hormone that converts glucose into energy needed for daily life. As many as three million Americans have type 1 diabetes, with about 85 percent of them adults and 15 percent children. Also, the prevalence of type 1 diabetes in Americans under age 20 rose by 23 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to JDRF, one of the leading global organizations for type 1 diabetes research.

This discovery also comes on the heels of another finding earlier this month, in which researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University were able to engineer a biomaterial that would protect insulin-producing cells during injection and then aid in blood vessel formation, allowing the cells to graft, survive, and function within the body. Their biomaterial helped insulin-producing cells fight off diabetes within mice. Four weeks after transplantation, the diabetic mice had normal glucose levels.

Source: Harrison L, Bandala-Sanchez E, Zhang Y, et al. T Cell Regulation Mediated by Interaction of Soluble CD52 with the Inhibitory Receptor Siglec-10. Nature Immunology. 2013.