Activation of natural killer T cells by alpha-galactosylceramide treatment prevents the onset and recurrence of autoimmune Type 1 diabetes

Nat Med. 2001 Sep;7(9):1057-62. doi: 10.1038/nm0901-1057.


Type 1 diabetes (T1D) in non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice may be favored by immune dysregulation leading to the hyporesponsiveness of regulatory T cells and activation of effector T-helper type 1 (Th1) cells. The immunoregulatory activity of natural killer T (NKT) cells is well documented, and both interleukin (IL)-4 and IL-10 secreted by NKT cells have important roles in mediating this activity. NKT cells are less frequent and display deficient IL-4 responses in both NOD mice and individuals at risk for T1D (ref. 8), and this deficiency may lead to T1D (refs. 1,6-9). Thus, given that NKT cells respond to the alpha-galactosylceramide (alpha-GalCer) glycolipid in a CD1d-restricted manner by secretion of Th2 cytokines, we reasoned that activation of NKT cells by alpha-GalCer might prevent the onset and/or recurrence of T1D. Here we show that alpha-GalCer treatment, even when initiated after the onset of insulitis, protects female NOD mice from T1D and prolongs the survival of pancreatic islets transplanted into newly diabetic NOD mice. In addition, when administered after the onset of insulitis, alpha-GalCer and IL-7 displayed synergistic effects, possibly via the ability of IL-7 to render NKT cells fully responsive to alpha-GalCer. Protection from T1D by alpha-GalCer was associated with the suppression of both T- and B-cell autoimmunity to islet beta cells and with a polarized Th2-like response in spleen and pancreas of these mice. These findings raise the possibility that alpha-GalCer treatment might be used therapeutically to prevent the onset and recurrence of human T1D.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / pharmacology
  • Antigens, CD1 / genetics
  • Cyclophosphamide / toxicity
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / chemically induced
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / immunology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / prevention & control*
  • Galactosylceramides / pharmacology*
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism
  • Interleukin-4 / metabolism
  • Interleukin-7 / pharmacology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • L-Selectin / metabolism
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, Mutant Strains
  • Receptors, Interleukin / drug effects
  • Receptors, Interleukin / immunology
  • Receptors, Interleukin-10
  • Spleen / drug effects
  • Spleen / metabolism


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antigens, CD1
  • Galactosylceramides
  • Interleukin-7
  • Receptors, Interleukin
  • Receptors, Interleukin-10
  • L-Selectin
  • Interleukin-4
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Cyclophosphamide