How exactly can genes protect against type 1 diabetes?

Posted on 16 January 2019

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Researchers have uncovered the first evidence to show how exactly certain genes might protect against type 1 diabetes.

Protective genes appear to “steal” pancreas proteins before these proteins can interact with high-risk genes.

These findings could help us to develop immunotherapy treatments to stop the immune system attacking the pancreas.

The work was partly funded by JDRF.

Why did they do this research?

We know that certain immune system genes can make it more or less likely for people to develop type 1 diabetes.

How exactly some genes protect against type 1 however remains unclear.

Previous evidence suggested that these genes are able to stick to pancreas proteins.

The researchers therefore wanted to build on this finding and work out how exactly the genes might be interacting with pancreas proteins to affect type 1 diabetes risk.

What did they do?

Genes are sections of DNA that contain instructions for making specific proteins. The body uses proteins to carry out many different activities.

The researchers designed experiments to see how the proteins made by genes related to type 1 diabetes risk were interacting with key pancreas proteins such as insulin.

They studied one protective gene, and one high-risk gene.

What did they find?

The protective gene and high-risk gene both make immune system proteins that stick to pancreas proteins.

If both genes are present together however, pancreas proteins are more likely to stick to the protective gene proteins, rather than the high-risk genes proteins.

The protective gene proteins therefore appear to protect against type 1 by “stealing” the pancreas proteins before they reach proteins made by the high-risk gene.

We can think of the protective and high-risk genes as football players on different teams. Both football players separately are able to take possession of the ball – the pancreas protein.

When playing against each other however, the football player on the protective gene team is able to take possession of the ball before the player from the high-risk gene team can.

What does this mean for type 1?

These results will help researchers develop immunotherapy treatments to stop the body attacking the pancreas, for example based on special cells carrying the protective genes.

In the future, immunotherapy could be used to prevent type 1 diabetes when given to people before they lose their beta cells.

Immunotherapy could also form half of a cure, making a full cure when combined with a treatment to replace the lost beta cells in people with long-standing type 1 diabetes.

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