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Prevention research

Our work to prevent type 1 diabetes has great potential to lift the burden of this condition from future generations.
Content last reviewed and updated: 21.08.2023

Type 1 diabetes prevention research. Islets under a microscope.

To prevent type 1 diabetes, we need to fix the immune system fault that lies at the heart of the condition. There are two areas of prevention research. The first aims to prevent the immune system from ever targeting insulin-producing cells. The second focuses on halting the immune system attack after it has begun but before a person needs to take insulin.

Research to prevent the immune system attack

Truly preventing type 1 means stopping the immune system going awry in the first place, which is sometimes called ‘primary prevention’. This would mean preventing the immune system from attacking and destroying insulin-producing beta cells.

To do this we need to know what causes type 1 to develop in the first place.

Understanding what causes type 1

The first step in working out how to prevent type 1 is to understand how it begins in the first place. Read more about the causes of type 1 diabetes.

Our researchers are unpicking what happens in someone’s body before they start needing insulin. This work ranges from growing groups of cells to model type 1 diabetes in the lab to examining pancreas samples donated by people with type 1.

A whole strand of the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge is dedicated to finding the root causes of the condition. Plus, our Connect Immune Research partnership brings together several autoimmune research funding organisations to hunt for clues as to how autoimmune conditions develop.

Do our genes cause type 1 diabetes?

Thanks to research, much of it funded by JDRF, we now know of over 50 genes that can influence our risk of type 1 diabetes. But we are still trying to understand why some people with the same genetic risk factors go on to develop type 1, while others don’t.

Could a viral infection cause type 1 diabetes?

There is growing evidence that several different viruses may have a role in triggering type 1. We don’t yet know if this is due to specific viruses or whether getting a virus overloads an already struggling immune system. Lots of researchers are working hard to understand more about the potential link between viruses and type 1.

Research to halt the immune system attack

The other type of prevention research (sometimes known as ‘secondary prevention’) looks at how to halt the immune system attack once it has already begun. This research is about preventing the need for insulin therapy, not preventing the earliest stages of the immune attack.

This type of research is very similar to immune research to cure type 1. The only difference is in the timing of when the treatment is to be given – before or after someone begins needing to take insulin.

It’s a race against time

Once the immune attack on a person’s insulin-producing cells has begun, it’s a matter of time before they develop clinical type 1 diabetes. People go through two stages of type 1 diabetes before they are diagnosed in stage 3 or clinical type 1 diabetes. This is when enough of a person’s beta cells are damaged that they need external insulin to manage their glucose levels. Research tells us this might be as fast as a few months in some people, but could take several decades in others.

Screening for type 1 diabetes

If we can identify people who are experiencing the autoimmune attack before they need insulin, we might be able to prevent them ever needing insulin treatment at all. Researchers across the world are investigating the best ways to screen populations to find those in the earliest stages of type 1 before they experience symptoms.

Find out how Professor Parth Narendran is screening UK children for type 1, in a study co-funded by JDRF. You can also learn about Professor Richard Oram’s JDRF-funded research to develop a combined risk score for type 1.

Learn more about screening for type 1 diabetes.

Boosting the protective function of the immune system

This area of research involves developing new treatments to retrain the immune system not to attack beta cells. We know that a healthy immune system usually prevents autoimmunity using its own specialised police of cells which make sure the immune system can’t damage healthy cells.

JDRF-funded researchers have shown that people with type 1 have fewer police cells, which allows the autoimmune reaction to continue uncontrolled. Researchers are now looking for ways to harness this knowledge to strengthen the systems that prevent autoimmunity in people at risk of developing type 1.

Immune therapies targeting the immune attack

Immune therapies, which are treatments that interfere with the attack by the immune system on beta cells, are emerging thick and fast. We are funding clinical trial networks, including the UK T1D Research Consortium, INNODIA and T1D Plus, to test potential immune therapies faster and more effectively.

A drug called teplizumab is licensed for people in the earliest stages of type 1 in the US. Teplizumab can currently delay type 1 by up to three years by slowing down the immune attack on beta cells. Researchers hope they can continue to increase this delay period, first long enough that type 1 no longer affects children, and then no one at all.

Find out more about immune therapies for type 1 diabetes.

How does prevention research help us treat type 1 diabetes?

Many of the drugs being tested in people in the earliest stages of type 1 before they need insulin (known as preclinical type 1 diabetes) are also being trialled in people newly diagnosed with type 1. This is because you still have some beta cells remaining when you are diagnosed with type 1 and may continue to for many years after.

According to JDRF-funded researcher Professor Colin Dayan, ‘keeping even 5% of beta cell function makes glucose control with injected insulin much smoother and makes it easier to avoid hypoglycemia’. You can read more about Colin’s research to improve and run clinical trials of immune therapies.

How does prevention research help us find a cure for type 1?

Prevention research focuses on understanding and controlling the immune system. Several JDRF-funded research projects to cure type 1 diabetes are trying to replace or regrow the insulin-producing beta cells. However, whatever caused the immune system to attack someone’s original beta cells will attack these replacement cells. So, preventing this immune attack could also form part of a cure for type 1.

Find out more about our cure research.

Explore more research

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A scientist in a lab screening for type 1 diabetes

Screening for type 1 diabetes

Screening aims to find people in the earliest stages of developing type 1 diabetes. Learn about how this can be done.

Read more
A woman doing a finger prick test to check blood glucose levels

Causes of type 1 diabetes

More than 50 genes have been identified that can influence a person’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes, but genes are only part of the cause. Scientists are also investigating the environmental factors that may play a role.

Read more
A scientist in the lab working on novel insulins as part of treatment research for type 1 diabetes

Cure research

Discover JDRF's research that aims to find ways for people with type 1 diabetes to gain the ability to make their own insulin again.

Prevention research projects

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Professor Kourosh Saeb-Parsy
Prevention research project

Analysing pancreas biology to enable early detection of type 1 diabetes

Lead researcher, Kourosh, says his study has the potential to transform our understanding of diabetes.

Read more
Professor Richard Oram
Prevention research project

Calculating a type 1 diabetes risk score 

In his JDRF-funded project, Dr Richard Oram is developing a type 1 diabetes risk score to predict who will develop type 1 diabetes in the future. The research Richard and his team at the University of Exeter are doing will help how we screen people for type 1.

Read more
Professor Lucy Walker
Prevention research project

Stopping immune cells from launching an autoimmune attack

Professor Lucy Walker from University College London is running a research project to target a specific type of immune cell in the hope of stopping the immune attack responsible for type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune conditions.

Read more
Alex Richter
Prevention research project

Improving screening tests for type 1 diabetes

Professor Alex Richter is a JDRF-funded researcher at the University of Birmingham who is developing an improved test to screen children for type 1 diabetes in the UK. Her new test will be more accurate and easier to use than the existing testing systems, which she hopes will encourage more people to get screened for type 1.

Prevention research news

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Young person receiving an injection of the immunotherapy drug teplizumab.jpg
18 October 2023

Clinical trial finds teplizumab slows type 1 diabetes in people newly diagnosed 

Results from a clinical trial called the PROTECT study show that teplizumab can preserve beta cell function in children and adolescents newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Read more
ELSA testing kits to screen for type 1 diabetes in children
Prevention research
16 October 2023

Trial to screen children for type 1 diabetes now available in Northern Ireland

Children in Northern Ireland are now eligible for a trial screening programme that will identify those at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes in the future.

Read more
DNA double helix and sequencing
Prevention research
19 June 2023

Children develop type 1 diabetes differently due to the activation of different genes

In a study co-funded by JDRF and Diabetes UK, researchers identified 13 genes involved in immune responses, which are activated specifically in people who develop type 1 diabetes at a young age.

Read more
Diabetic kidney disease predictive genetic test researchers
16 February 2023

JDRF-funded researchers develop a genetic test to detect diabetic kidney disease early

Researchers have identified genes that predict the development and progression of diabetic kidney disease, giving us the potential to limit how many people with type 1 experience kidney failure.