The folate pathway is critical to proper cellular function and metabolism. It is responsible for multiple functions, including energy (ATP) production, methylation reactions for DNA and protein synthesis and the production of immunomodulatory molecules, inosine and adenosine. These play an important role in immune signaling and cytotoxicity. Herein, we hypothesize that defects in the folate pathway in genetically susceptible individuals could lead to immune dysfunction, permissive environments for chronic cyclical latent/lytic viral infection, and, ultimately, the development of unchecked autoimmune responses to infected tissue, in this case islet beta cells. In the context of type 1 diabetes (T1D), there has been a recent increase in newly diagnosed cases of T1D in the past 20 years that has exceeded previous epidemiological predictions with yet unidentified factor(s). This speaks to a potential environmental trigger that adversely affects immune responses. Most research into the immune dysfunction of T1D has focused on downstream adaptive responses of T and B cells neglecting the role of the upstream innate players such as natural killer (NK) cells. Constantly, surveilling the blood and tissues for pathogens, NK cells remove threats through direct cytotoxic responses and recruitment of adaptive responses using cytokines, such as IL-1β and IFN-γ. One long-standing hypothesis suggests viral infection as a potential trigger for the autoimmune response in T1D. Recent data suggest multiple viruses as potential causal agents. Intertwined with this is an observed reduced NK cell enumeration, cytotoxicity, and cytokine signaling in T1D patients. Many of the viruses implicated in T1D are chronic latent/lysogenic infections with demonstrated capacity to reduce NK cell response and number through mechanisms that resemble those of pregnancy tolerance. Defects in the folate pathway in T1D patients could result in decreased immune response to viral infection or viral reactivation. Dampened NK responses to infections result in improper signaling, improper antigen presentation, and amplified CD8+ lymphocyte proliferation and cytotoxicity, a hallmark of beta cell infiltrates in patients with T1D onset. This would suggest a critical role for NK cells in T1D development linked to viral infection and the importance of the folate pathway in maintaining proper NK response.
Keywords: diabetes; folate cycle; folic acid; natural killer cells; virus.