My Body Is Not Spam: Retraining the Diabetic Immune System


One of the conceptual problems I have with the state of Type 1 diabetes treatment is that, as with many complex and uncured diseases, all we can do is try to lessen the effects of the symptoms of the disease. Unmodulated blood glucose– the hallmark of diabetes– is only an incidental result of the real problem: my body’s immune system has labeled the insulin-producing beta cells in my pancreas as dangerous, and has killed them off. Without these insulin-producing cells, my body can’t regulate blood glucose levels on its own.

The problem is, the immune system’s attack is hard to reverse and hard to untangle; the best solution we have so far is to inject insulin, and manually control my blood glucose levels so that elevated blood sugar doesn’t overtime lead to worse symptoms– organ death first, and, ultimately, just death.

Insulin treatment, then, is necessary, and it is a God-send for diabetics like me (have you read the story of the first use of insulin in the 1920s? Ridiculously Epic, with a capital E; why isn’t that a movie yet?) But, it’s not a solution, and it doesn’t address the root of the problem: the immune system.

So what is the immune system, anyway? And what does it have against my beta cells? These are the questions that I have been pondering and researching for the past week or so. I’ve only just dipped my toes in the vast body of scientific literature about the immune system, but here’s what I’ve determined so far:

The immune system is my body’s spam detector.

Basically, the immune system is a biological classification system. In the simplest terms, its job is to label entities found in the body as “pathogen” or “safe”– much like your email system labels email as “spam” or “eh, let it through.” The trick is, as with any good classification system, the world is not black and white to my immune system; every decision is a question of weights and probabilities, of likelihoods and comparisons. Is entity X a pathogen? Well, this molecular compound indicates maybe, but only if it co-occurs with another particular molecule that I don’t see here; let it by for now.

As with a spam detector, certain rules are innate, built in to my immune system. Any email with no subject and only a link is spam, no matter how many times I tell my spam detector it’s not. Likewise, certain bacterial mechanisms and molecular structures are known at birth by my immune system to be unwanted, and it doesn’t have to develop immunity over time.

Other rules, though, are learned; spammers are smart, and they keep changing to try to trick spam detectors. When all emails with “Viagra” and a link were marked as spam, spammers started sending “V1agra” and paragraphs of Old English text. Enough of those emails get labeled as “spam” by their recipients, and the spam detectors learn– both “Viagra” and “V1agra” are bad, and so is random text from old books. Similarly, my immune system might let certain pathogens through the first time around, but, seeing the ill-effects on other parts of the body, and seeing that the pathogen causes bad reactions, will train T-cells to look out for that particular pathogen, and to lie in wait if it ever comes back.

The problem is that sometimes classification systems get a bit overzealous and learn rules they shouldn’t. In spam detection, this means all my boss’s emails keep getting caught in the spam filter, and I miss important pieces of information. In immunology, this means I have an autoimmune disease, and my immune system keeps labeling my precious beta cells for destruction.

Why does this happen? Somewhere during training, the classification system learns rules that it applies to each new scenario, and it layers these rules to come up with a likelihood that the entity at hand is either good or bad. Is the email short? Does it have links? Is it addressed by name? Is the recipient in the to-line or BCCed? No single feature here gives a certain positive, but merely adds a weighting to the likelihood overall that the email is spam.

Similarly, in the immune system, maybe at some point I got a virus that had a certain peptide– GAD, let’s say, for the sake of example– and my body learned to look for GAD, and to assign protein sequences that had the peptide GAD with a certain weighting towards “pathogen.” Well, it just so happens that beta cells also have that peptide sequence. And it also just so happens that perhaps genetically, perhaps by the luck of the draw, perhaps by the individual variation that is possible in any biological system, I have too few NKT cells in my immune system. Or too weak regulatory T-cells. Or some minor imbalance of another kind. And the weighting against that one peptide doesn’t get out-weighed by some other factor of my beta cells. And my immune system labels my beta cells as pathogens.

And the rest is history. Once the beta cells are initially labeled, the attack begins. To complicate matters, over time my immune system, out of balance and unaware that it’s doing damage to its own body, begins to think it’s doing the right thing by killing beta cells. And so it starts to train itself based on other features of the beta cells. Then it’s not just the initial peptide that indicates pathogenicity, but others associated with beta cells and insulin generation likewise get weighted as likely indicators of an unwanted entity. And pretty soon every beta cell in my body has been tossed into the spam folder, and my body is incapable of producing the insulin it needs to regulate blood sugar, and I am a Type 1 diabetic.


So. What do I do? For now, I treat the symptoms with insulin. But what about going forward? How do we address the root of the problem?

Well, what do I do when my spam detector gets overzealous, and starts marking safe emails as spam? I retrain it, of course– first, I make sure to watch the spam filter, and un-label every incorrectly labeled email. I pull them out of the spam folder. I create a separate, explicit rule that tries to force certain emails into accepted folders. I stamp my feet and gnash my teeth and tell the computer, “No, I need these emails! MY BODY IS NOT SPAM.”

Oops, I think I just lost track of my metaphors there. But with a purpose: how do I tell my immune system that my beta cells– and all their molecular markers– are not spam? How do I retrain my immune system? Is such a thing possible? What if I started to expose it to molecular compounds mixing GAD, insulin, and the other beta cell biomarkers co-occurring with molecules my body knows to be good? The FDA just approved a prostate cancer drug that trains the immune system to know cancerous cells as pathogenic, and we have centuries of successful training in the form of vaccines; what has been found in the realm of reverse-vaccines and un-teaching the immune system rules it has learned?

If you know the answers to those questions, please let me know. Otherwise, that’s the plan for the next few weeks of pondering and researching.

Interested in knowing more about the immune system and Type 1 diabetes? This is a nice primer. With pictures!

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Dr. Margaret A. Morris
11 years ago

While certain anti-inflammatory treatments (not herbal remedies, as far as I know, but it’s a similar theory) have been shown to help preserve existing beta cell function for a little while, we have unfortunately yet to see successful regrowth and regeneration after beta cells have died. More importantly, though, beware homeopathic remedies– they are ill-tested and often ill-understood. As the recently retired expert, Edzard Ernst says, “I found that homeopathy is pretty useless. I would have liked the evidence to go the other way because I trained as a homeopath. It would have been quite nice to win a Nobel… Read more »

11 years ago

Have you looked in to a more natural approach? Some things that I have been considering are niacinamide: this slows down the attack on Beta cells and encourages them to divide and regrow.
Euonymus Alatus: an herb that stimulates Beta cell  production.
Chaga: a tried and true decoction that strengthens the T cells and balances out the whole immune system.
These things, taken with a vegetable based diet and the elimination of dairy seem to work well for many type 1 diabetics. If you stop needing to take insulin, do you still have diabetes?
Does it technically matter?

Dr. Margaret A. Morris
12 years ago

Hi Denise, Allergies and asthma are another tough immune system imbalance! It’s great that you keep on top of the research for you son’s sake. I have not tried any immune suppressants or modifiers thus far; there is a lot of promising research in that area, especially for recent onset diabetics ( A Sweet Life’s own Emily is in a trial of one immune modification approach, the Protege Encore study: ), but I myself have not tried anything. Immune therapy is a very promising avenue, but, of course, not one without its perils– I’ve read enough at this point to… Read more »

12 years ago

Great posting.  My son is 4 1/2 and has food allergies and asthma.  We too are managing our symptoms – which is a constant anxiety provoking and moving target – given that food is everywhere and well pollen happens.  But I often think, research, obsess over the immune system as well – and retraining it.  Have you tried anything like thymus glandulars or transfer factors?  I am researching both – there was a study with bovine thymus extract that modulated the immune system.  There was also a posting about a scientist that had tested injecting some immune modulating elements (again,… Read more »

Scott K. Johnson
Scott K. Johnson
12 years ago

This is a fantastic post Karmel!  Thank you!
I’ve never thought about it in terms of a SPAM metaphor, but it totally fits.  :-)

Dr. Margaret A. Morris
12 years ago

I have not seen “Glory Enough For All”– but I certainly will! Looks like it is a Canadian drama from 1988:
Thanks, Bryn, for the recommendation!

12 years ago

Great post – a thoughtful idea that is usually obscured by my day-to-day management of the sugar-insulin-exercise-life-etcetera game.  Regarding the movie idea: have you seen “Glory Enough For All”?  It came out in the late 80’s, was not a mainstream movie but a PBS-type miniseries.  It came out right after I was diagnosed, and therefore has always been part of my subconscious diabetes awareness.  I think the whole thing can be watched on youtube if you’re interested.

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