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Prevention research

JDRF and Helmsley Trust funding leads global research push to prevent type 1 diabetes

JDRF and the Helmsley Charitable Trust have announced over £1.5 million in joint funding for five international researchers – including one UK-based researcher – to access unique data sources and unravel how type 1 diabetes develops, with the goal of preventing the condition.
Josie Clarkson 13 February 2024

A profile photo of type 1 diabetes prevention researcher, Professor Claire Meek.

Professor Claire Meek at the University of Leicester is leading one of five global research projects receiving part of £1.5 million funding from JDRF and the Helmsley Charitable Trust to access a unique database which could help prevent type 1 diabetes.

Professor Meek is partnering with the Environmental Determinants of Islet Autoimmunity (ENDIA) Study. Pioneering in its approach, this study monitors close relatives of people with type 1, beginning when they are still in the womb, to investigate the intricate relationship between environmental factors and an individual’s genes. The primary goal is to unravel the role these factors play in initiating and influencing the development of type 1 diabetes.

What is the ENDIA Study?

ENDIA has collected over 200,000 unique biological samples – such as blood, immune cells, breast milk, nasal swabs, stool, and urine samples – along with 16 million medical observations from 1500 people with a parent or sibling diagnosed with type 1.

JDRF and Helmsley have supported ENDIA since 2015, and together we are now investing a further £1.5 million to allow five researchers around the world to collaborate with ENDIA. Professor Meek and the other select researchers will use ENDIA’s extensive resources to investigate novel concepts about how type 1 develops.

Dr Dorota Pawlak, Chief Scientific Officer at JDRF Australia, said: “ENDIA was the first study of its kind globally. The richness of the data and uniqueness of biological samples collected puts it at the forefront of research in type 1 diabetes prevention. This funding announcement will see ENDIA’s impact reach a new international level, by giving the best and brightest type 1 diabetes researchers around the globe access to ENDIA’s precious resources for innovative investigations seeking to uncover new findings. Importantly, it will also widen the scale of national and international expertise within the ENDIA team through these collaborations.”

What are the five new research projects?

New UK-based research project

Professor Meek will hunt for new ways to identify how likely individuals are to develop type 1 by using advanced techniques to identify biological changes during pregnancy that may alter the unborn baby’s pancreas and immunity. By comparing children with different exposures during pregnancy, Professor Meek aims to discover biological markers in newborn babies that could predict type 1.

Professor Claire Meek, who is working within the National Institute for Health and Care Research Leicester Biomedical Research Centre said: “I am delighted to be one of only five researchers across the world given exclusive access to ENDIA’s unique and unprecedented resources. I would like to thank JDRF and Helmsley for their longstanding commitment to unravelling the driving forces behind type 1 diabetes. I am honoured to contribute to the research by hunting for any pivotal biological changes that occur during pregnancy that may cause changes in the unborn child’s pancreas that could predict if they will develop type 1 diabetes. Along with the other four researchers receiving funding today, my project will bring us closer to being able to prevent type 1 diabetes.”

Pancreatic hormones and developing type 1

Insulin autoantibodies are biological markers that the immune attack on insulin-making beta cells has begun. Assistant Professor Clive Wasserfall from the University of Florida previously discovered that people with more than two types of insulin autoantibodies showed reduced levels of the growth hormones IGF1 and IGF2. In this project, Clive and his team will measure levels of IGF1, IGF2, and a digestive substance produced in the pancreas called trypsinogen in children, to determine if they can be used as early-life indicators of a person’s risk of developing type 1.

Maternal diabetes and the child’s risk of type 1

In her study at the University of Colorado, Assistant Professor Randi Johnson will look at how a mother’s type 1 diabetes during pregnancy reduces their baby’s risk of developing type 1. Focusing on specific changes to the DNA of the immune cells, Randi will investigate how maternal blood sugar control during pregnancy might impact the child’s susceptibility to type 1. She aims to understand these changes and potentially develop targeted therapies for individuals with a family history of type 1.

Breastmilk and risk of type 1

A mother’s breastmilk is influenced by her diet and whether she has diabetes. Dr Satvika Burugupalli at the Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute is seeking to understand if specific components in breastmilk can affect the risk of children developing insulin autoantibodies and type 1 diabetes. Satvika will analyse the bacteria, fats, sugars and other components of mothers’ breastmilk and compare them with the bacteria in the mouths of their infants. She hopes this will reveal any potential links between the composition of breastmilk and children developing type 1.

The role of gut microbes in type 1 diabetes

Associate Professor Tommi Vatanen from the University of Helsinki will build upon previous research on gut bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, in families. Tommi will collaborate with the ENDIA team to examine how gut bacteria may be related to the development of insulin autoantibodies and type 1 within families. Tommi and his team will assess the gut microbiomes of the family members of people with type 1 to identify patterns associated with autoimmunity. They will also use cutting-edge technology and analysis to investigate bacterial interactions, transmission, and the potential role of certain microbes in the development of type 1.

Bringing us closer to preventing type 1

Being able to accurately estimate who will develop type 1 will enable us to detect the onset of the condition earlier than ever before. Rachel Connor, Director of Research Partnerships at JDRF UK, said: “JDRF is proud to have supported ENDIA from its inception and it is incredibly exciting to announce this first round of research projects to delve into its fantastic data.

“It is more exciting still that one of these five pioneering research projects is taking place here in the UK. Through innovative research projects like Professor Claire Meek’s, we hope to reach a point where we can stop type 1 diabetes in its tracks, so that people never experience the burden of managing type 1 diabetes with insulin and we can consign this condition to the history books.”

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