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Type 1 diabetes research at the University of Birmingham

Learn about the exciting type 1 diabetes research taking place at the University of Birmingham.
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Josie Clarkson 7 November 2023

Type 1 diabetes researchers at the University of Birmingham

We were delighted to be invited to the University of Birmingham to meet some of our fantastic JDRF-funded researchers. They shared exciting research updates and took us behind the scenes of the UK’s biggest screening study for type 1 diabetes.

The ELSA Study

The first stop on our tour was the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre, where Professor Parth Narendran introduced us to the team running The ELSA Study. The team are screening 20,000 children aged 3-13 across the UK for type 1. This will provide insights into practical and effective ways to screen the UK population. Screening for type 1 is crucial to find people who may benefit from immune therapies and to educate people of the signs of type 1 to prevent diagnosis in diabetic ketoacidosis.

We followed the blood testing kits from the packing and posting stage right through to Professor Alex Richter’s JDRF-funded lab, where researcher Chris analyses the blood samples. He is looking for specific proteins that attack insulin-producing cells and mean someone is at risk of developing type 1. Children in the study currently do a finger prick and send blood spots back to the lab. Alex is improving this process by developing a lateral flow test, like COVID-19 tests, which reveal the result within 15 minutes. This will provide almost immediate reassurance for the 99% of children who test negative for type 1.

In summer 2023, paramedics and nurses from the South Central Ambulance Service joined the ELSA Study team, screening children in GP practices, schools and community centres. In October, the research team expanded the project to include children in Northern Ireland, meaning children in all four UK nations can take part. Over 10,000 families have now enrolled in the ELSA study across the UK!

Three type 1 diabetes researchers at the University of Birmingham, showing off their medals as they have been fundraising for JDRF.

Three of the JDRF-funded researchers who raised money for JDRF Alex, Parth and Lauren.

Researchers fundraising for JDRF

Four researchers from The ELSA Study took part in our Tri for Type 1: Swim challenge this August, where they swam a combined distance of 21 miles – the length of the English Channel!

Clinical Research Fellow, Dr Lauren Quinn, said: “I’m really proud to be raising money for JDRF because of all the work they do to support people living with diabetes; the people diagnosed with type 1, their family, parents, carers and young people. A huge thank you to everyone living with type 1 and all the work JDRF does to support them!”

The SMILE Trial

Thanks to an incredible £1m donation from the Steve Morgan Foundation, Professor Timothy Barrett is running a clinical trial of semaglutide in hospitals across England. Semaglutide can reduce blood sugar levels by increasing the amount of insulin released, stopping glucagon release, and slowing stomach emptying. You may have heard of the drug under the brand name Ozempic.

The drug is already licensed to treat type 2 diabetes in the UK. Now, Tim is investigating whether it could help treat type 1. Tim told us that his clinical trial, known as ‘The SMILE Trial’, will begin in January 2024 involving 240 young people with type 1 aged 10-24 years. His team will give 144 of participants an injection of semaglutide each week for 36 weeks and the remaining group a non-active placebo, plus their usual insulin treatment.

Tim will compare the blood sugar of the young people in each group to determine how semaglutide affects glucose levels. He hopes the results will show that semaglutide can help young people manage their type 1.

Autoimmune research

The last researcher we met was Professor David Wraith, a veteran of autoimmune research with 35 years of immunology research under his belt. Autoimmunity is where our immune system attacks our own body cells instead of harmful invaders like bacteria and viruses. Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), and rheumatoid arthritis are all examples of autoimmune conditions.

With his experience in multiple autoimmune conditions, David was instrumental in setting up our Connect Immune Research partnership. The partnership of 11 autoimmune research organisations aims to accelerate the progression and impact of autoimmune research by funding projects investigating the underlying biology of autoimmunity.

David is currently working on a new way to treat autoimmune conditions using tiny proteins called peptides. The peptides can switch the immune cells responsible for autoimmunity from their destructive state into their protective state. This causes other immune cells to switch to their protective state too, stopping the autoimmune attack on body cells, such as the insulin-producing cells targeted in type 1.

David has run clinical trials of these peptides in people with MS and tests in animals with type 1. He will now test whether the peptides are safe and effective in a small number of people newly diagnosed with type 1. Encouragingly peptides are very cheap compared to other drugs like immune therapies, so could hopefully become an affordable and accessible treatment to prevent type 1 in the future.

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