Zinc is required for optimal functioning of the immune system. It was recently reported that one of the best-known thymic hormones responsible for the maturation and differentiation of the thymus-derived T-lymphocyte line, i.e., serum thymic factor (STF), is biologically active only when bound to zinc ions; in this form it has been called thymulin (Zn-STF). Because low serum and tissue zinc values have been reported to occur in diabetic conditions, and because defects of T-lymphocyte–dependent functions are also present in diabetic patients, even metabolically well-controlled diabetic patients, we investigated the serum level of zinc and the plasma level of both active Zn-STF and inactive STF thymic hormones in 15 young patients suffering from type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes. Serum zinc levels were significantly reduced in diabetic conditions and did not correlate with the degree of metabolic compensation measured by glycosylated hemoglobin. In diabetes, the active form of thymulin is strongly reduced, whereas the inactive form is abnormally elevated. In vitro zinc addition to diabetic plasma samples also induces zinc saturation of inactive thymic hormone molecules: the total thymic hormone measured in these experimental conditions shows values in diabetic patients comparable with those observed in healthy age-matched individuals, suggesting that low thymulin levels recorded in diabetic conditions are due not to a thymic failure in synthesizing and secreting thymic hormone but to a peripheral defect in zinc saturation of the hormone molecules. The zinc-dependent failure of thymic hormone, present even in fairly compensated diabetic conditions, might account for the apparent insulin-independent immunological abnormalities associated with type I diabetes.

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