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Developing a drug to protect insulin-producing beta cells

Dr Gavin Bewick is a researcher at King’s College London whose research focuses on the cells in the pancreas which produce and release insulin, the beta cells. He is currently developing a drug to protect these beta cells.
Content last reviewed and updated: 21.08.2023
Dr Gavin Bewick, a type 1 diabetes researcher working on developing a drug to protect beta cells, in his lab.

Dr Gavin Bewick, a type 1 diabetes researcher working on developing a drug to protect beta cells, in his lab.

What are beta cells?

Beta cells are cells in the pancreas that produce and release insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys beta cells. At diagnosis, a person with type 1 typically has just 10-20% of their beta cells left. At this point their body can no longer produce enough insulin to regulate the level of glucose in their blood.

Boosting beta cells in people with type 1

Gavin and his team are trying to find a way to boost the health, function and amount of beta cells a person with type 1 has, so that they may no longer need to rely on insulin injections or insulin pumps. Ideally, this research could lead to a drug that could regenerate beta cells so that they are functional. This would mean they could help to control glucose in a person with type 1, lessening – or even eradicating – their reliance on external insulin.

How do drugs work?

Drugs work by binding to proteins on the surface of cells called receptors. This activates or inhibits the receptor causing an effect within the cell.

Gavin’s previous JDRF-funded research

In his last JDRF-supported project, Gavin showed that activation of a specific receptor – called the NPY receptor – protects human beta cells from damage. He found that it can do this without preventing insulin release. Gavin’s work highlighted the NPY receptor as a promising target for drugs which could bind to it and activate it.

A promising synthetic drug

Gavin’s previous research also identified a promising synthetic drug called K22, which can activate the NPY receptor. He and his team discovered that K22 protects the pancreatic islets (clusters of cells which contain beta cells) from invasion and attack by a type of immune cell called a macrophage. To understand K22’s true potential for treating type 1, Gavin aims to learn how it protects the insulin-producing beta cells from damage.

What will Gavin do in this research project?

In this study, Gavin’s team will test whether the drug K22 can activate the NPY receptor to prevent beta cells dying and help them retain their function. NPY receptors are also found in organs throughout the body, including the brain. So the researchers aim to fine tune the drug so that it only activates the receptors in the pancreas. This will enhance the protective ability of K22 and reduce any potential side effects.

How does activating these receptors protect beta cells?

The team at King’s College London will begin by collaborating with a lab in the US to figure out which cells within the pancreas contain NPY receptors. Next, to reveal the underlying biology involved, Gavin will expose pancreas samples from donors to K22 before separating and examining the individual cells within them. His research team will also run several experiments with different immune cells to work out how K22 protects beta cells from the immune system.

Developing a new drug to treat type 1 diabetes

Equipped with this vital knowledge, Gavin can begin developing a new version of the drug that specifically targets the pancreas cells. If this project is successful, his next step would be to design and carry out clinical trials to evaluate the drug’s safety and effectiveness in humans.

Who are the researchers in Gavin’s team?

Gavin’s grant from JDRF includes funding for a researcher called Dr Naila Haq. Naila takes on the bulk of the day-to-day lab work. She grows 3D clusters of beta cells and immune cells and studies them through powerful microscopes alongside donated pancreas samples.

How will this research help people with type 1?

Gavin and Naila hope their research will lead to a treatment which can restore a healthy population of beta cells in people who already have type 1. The drug would protect their beta cells from damage, make remaining beta cells function more efficiently, and increase their number. This would lower the amount of insulin people with type 1 would have to give themselves and likely reduce their hypos. This would ultimately make type 1 more manageable and less dangerous. It may also halt or delay progression of type 1 in people recently diagnosed with the condition.

Is JDRF funding any other research like this?

JDRF funded Gavin’s previous project to find out more about the NPY receptor and drug K22. We are also funding Dr Rocio Sancho’s project at Kings College London, where her team is growing new beta cells in their lab from stem cells (cells that can develop into many other types of cell).

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