Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune reaction. This means the immune system has gone wrong, targeting healthy insulin-making cells. To cure type 1 we must stop this immune attack, and get the immune system working normally again.
In the last 50 years, our understanding of type 1 diabetes has changed radically – we didn’t know that the immune system had anything to do with type 1 until the 1970s. But we now have the technology to see the immune attack happening in tissue samples, and are starting to understand why the immune system can go wrong and allow autoimmunity to occur.
At JDRF, we actively support research to better understand the process leading to the misguided immune attack on the beta cells and develop new treatments that could stop it in its tracks. Our research teams are tackling this challenging work in a number of ways.
Retraining the immune system
The immune system attacks and destroys beta cells when it (mistakenly) recognises some of the molecules on the surface of the cells as ‘bad’. These molecules are known as ‘antigens’. So one approach to tackling type 1 is to teach the immune system to ignore or tolerate these antigens again. This is the same sort of approach as doctors use to treat food allergies, where very gradual introduction of tiny amounts of the food can help to stop the allergic reaction from happening again.
JDRF has been supporting Professors Mark Peakman and Colin Dayan to develop a treatment like this for people newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The result, called MultiPepT1De, is now being tested in clinical trials, and we hope the treatment will be able to stop the autoimmune attack before all the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are gone. You can read about the results of a related clinical trial here, announced in August 2017.
Killing the killers
The cells made by the immune system that can target beta cells are the only ones that can do the damage that leads to type 1. So another approach to stopping the immune response is to specifically kill off these killer cells. Professors Susan Wong and Gideon Gross are working together to grow ‘assassin cells’ from stem cells which will be able to intercept the ‘rogue’ immune cells at the heart of type 1.
And while these approaches are important to curing type 1, they are also important to preventing type 1 – because if we can stop the immune reaction before someone needs to start taking insulin, they will be cured without the need for new beta cells. Read more about our prevention research.