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Treatment research project

Can islet helper cells in the pancreas treat type 1 diabetes?

Dr Chloe Rackham is investigating how supportive cells called mesenchymal stem cells may help protect people from developing type 1.
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Josie Clarkson 8 November 2023
Dr Chloe Rackham

Dr Chloe Rackham

Dr Chloe Rackham, JDRF-funded researcher at the University of Exeter, is looking at how mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in the pancreas , also known as ‘islet helper’ cells, may be different in people with type 1. Her research will help us understand how MSCs could be used to treat or prevent type 1.

What are mesenchymal stem cells?

MSCs are found in most parts of the body, including the pancreas, bone marrow, fat tissue and kidneys. MSCs help the insulin-producing beta cells make insulin in response to rising blood glucose levels. They may also help to protect beta cells from the immune attack that leads to type 1. Clinical trials have shown that MSCs can help to retain the function of beta cells in people newly diagnosed with type 1.

Micrograph image of human mesenchymal stem cells

A photo taken through a microscope of human mesenchymal stem cells

Why is JDRF funding this project?

This previous research has helped us understand the function of MSCs elsewhere in the body, such as those taken from bone marrow. We know much less about the MSCs in the pancreas and their role in people with and without type 1. Chloe’s research will help improve our knowledge of MSCs in the pancreas and reveal if they could be used to treat type 1.

Studying pancreas samples

Using state-of-the art microscope and imaging techniques, Chloe and her team will study pancreas samples from children newly diagnosed with type 1 to find out how the MSCs change in type 1 diabetes. They will measure whether the number, distribution and function of pancreas MSCs are altered in type 1. Their analysis will determine whether the pancreas MSCs play a role in preventing the immune system from destroying beta cells and causing type 1.

Physical barrier protecting beta cells

Beta cells exist with other types of cells in clusters called islets. Each islet has a protective capsule surrounding it which acts as a physical barrier to harmful immune cells. We already know that this shield is lost as type 1 develops and that MSCs can make many parts of the capsule. Chloe will use powerful microscopes to find out if MSCs help preserve the protective capsule by seeing whether the barrier is more complete when there are MSCs present.

Observing cell interactions

The researchers will watch how the MSCs interact with the islet cells and the immune cells using fluorescent dyes. They will give each cell type in the pancreas (including pancreas MSCs, islet capsule components, beta cells and immune cells) a different fluorescent label. The multicoloured pattern that emerges will reveal the role of the pancreas MSCs in health and in people developing type 1.

Differences between individuals with type 1

Chloe is using pancreas samples from a range of people at different stages of developing type 1. This will help her assess whether the role of pancreas MSCs differs between different subgroups of people with type 1. If her analysis reveals differences in pancreas MSCs among type 1 subgroups, it may suggest who may benefit most from treatments that target MSCs. She will also try to work out when would be the most beneficial time in the development of type 1 to give a potential treatment targeting the MSCs.

How will this research help people with type 1?

Improving our understanding of MSCs in the pancreas is vital to determine whether a treatment targeting MSCs could help people with type 1 maintain a healthy population of beta cells. Ultimately, we hope this type of treatment could prevent people ever developing type 1. But even boosting the number of functioning beta cells people with type 1 have is beneficial. Having more beta cells can reduce short-term risks of hypoglycaemia, risk of long-term diabetes complications, and improve overall quality of life.

Is JDRF funding any other research like this?

Chloe is the only researcher we are funding to investigate MSCs, but other JDRF-funded researchers are trying to protect beta cells in different ways. For example, Dr Gavin Bewick is developing a drug that interferes with the immune system’s attack on beta cells. Find out more about Gavin’s research.

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