Our Research Communications Manager, Conor McKeever, explains how JDRF is funding immunotherapy research that could one day cure or even prevent type 1 diabetes.
You may have seen the news this summer that JDRF-funded researchers have managed to delay the onset of type 1 diabetes using an immunotherapy called teplizumab.
It’s an exciting discovery – it shows that a drug that modifies the immune system can help push back the start of an autoimmune condition, like type 1.
On the back of these results, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even designated teplizumab a ‘Breakthrough Therapy’. This means that the FDA will work closely with the company trialling the drug to speed up its development.
This is good news for the relatives of people who already have the condition, as it means we’re one step closer to preventing the condition altogether.
But it’s also good news for people living with type 1, as it means that we now have a better understanding of how to stop the immune system’s attack on insulin-producing beta cells.
Combined with a way to regrow beta cells, that same knowledge could one day lead us to a cure for type 1 diabetes.
This breakthrough is just one part of our immunotherapy research. We have teams across the world looking at ways to fix the immune attack at the heart of type 1 diabetes.
One of our biggest projects in this area is TrialNet – a network of researchers looking to better understand how the condition develops, and how it could be prevented.
They’re looking for clues in blood samples from the relatives of people who already have type 1 diabetes, as these people are at a higher risk of developing the condition.
We also co-fund the Type 1 Diabetes UK Immunotherapy Consortium, which recruits people with type 1 into clinical trials of new immunotherapy treatments.
Retraining the immune system
At the heart of immunotherapy is the idea of modifying the immune system to do what we want it to do.
In Cardiff, a team led by Professor Susan Wong has taken this to the next level by genetically engineering a team of ‘good’ immune cells to find and kill the ‘rogue’ T cells that attack the beta cells in type 1.
The team is now trying to use these ‘good’ immune cells to find and retrain (rather than kill) rogue T cells, so that they tolerate beta cells. These newly ‘tolerised’ T cells could then also find and retrain other rogue T cells, potentially resulting in a much more effective and long-lasting therapy.
Links with other autoimmune conditions
Key to developing a successful immunotherapy is having a good understanding of the immune system. To get this, we need to look wider than just type 1 diabetes.
There are more than 80 autoimmune conditions known to science – including type 1, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis – and we know there are similarities in the genetic risk factors for many of these conditions.
But until now, researchers working on any one of these conditions have had limited opportunities to collaborate and share their findings.
So we set up Connect Immune Research with Versus Arthritis, the MS Society and the British Society of Immunology to bring together scientists with expertise across different autoimmune conditions, to discover the common threads in their work.
By doing this, we could discover that one treatment in a single condition is a skeleton key, unlocking impact far beyond the initial indication. This could also dramatically reduce research costs and speed the transformation of treatment for millions of people.
Many paths to a world without type 1
Permanently switching off an autoimmune response in humans is something that’s never been done before. That’s why we’re funding research into many different approaches – to give us the best possible chance of finding a cure, as quickly as possible.
Internationally, our Immunotherapies Program has invested $145 million in research to-date, including 80 currently active grants, and several clinical trials.
With JDRF researchers leading the way, we’re confident that we will create a world without type 1 diabetes.