What is involved in cure research for type 1 diabetes?
A cure for type 1 diabetes must do two things: stop the immune system destroying the cells that make insulin, and replace the cells that have been lost.
Beta cells are the highly specialised cells that make insulin. They are found in clumps of around 100 cells in the pancreas. These clumps are called the islets of Langerhans – or islets for short.
A large part of the cure research we fund is about understanding beta cells and islets: how they grow, how they stay healthy and how we can give new ones to people with type 1.
Explore our cure research projects to discover more about how world-class scientists in UK institutions are aiming to one day find the cure for type 1.
Giving people insulin-producing cells that are protected from immune attack
Giving new cells to people with type 1 is something we can already do. Read about islet and pancreas transplantation.
So why are we still researching it?
Unfortunately there are problems with the process. Transplants require people to take drugs for the rest of their lives to stop their bodies from rejecting the new cells. These drugs are in themselves risky, and even with them, people are not insulin free forever. This means that for most people with type 1, the risks of a transplant vastly outweigh the benefits. Another problem is that there are not enough organ donors to meet the needs of the people who currently need a pancreas or islet transplant.
So our cure research is helping to develop new sources of cells that could be used for transplantation – and to develop new ways of protecting the new cells from rejection, and autoimmune destruction. We call this ‘encapsulation’. Encapsulation means putting the precious beta cells in a protective coating before putting them into the body.
Getting the body to grow new insulin-producing cells
There may be another way to get new beta cells into people with type 1 without a transplant of some kind. We believe we can get people to grow their own!
Throughout life there are times when we need to grow more beta cells – for example as we grow from childhood to adulthood, or when a woman is pregnant. So as the healthy human body can make more beta cells – why can’t it do that in people with type 1 diabetes?
Immune therapy research
Retraining the immune system to stop attacking insulin-producing cells
A need for more beta cells is only part of the problem in type 1. If people with the condition get new beta cells, their immune system is still primed to destroy those new cells. So we need to stop this process to fully cure type 1.
To do that we must first understand how and why the immune system goes wrong in type 1 diabetes. The immune system is finely tuned and can usually regulate itself so that it doesn’t ever attack healthy tissue in the body. Why does that process go wrong in type 1? How can we fix it?
UK researchers are at the forefront of the march to answer these questions and develop treatments that will help to cure type 1 – and prevent it too.