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Follicular helper T cells: are they an indication of Type 1 diabetes?

Project summary

Investigating follicular helper T cells as biomarkers and new therapeutic targets in autoimmune diabetes

Professor Lucy Walker and her colleagues have found that a specific type of immune cell – called the follicular helper T cell – can trigger Type 1 diabetes in mice, and is more common in people with Type 1 diabetes. The team now aims to understand exactly how follicular helper T cells cause Type 1 diabetes, and they will test new strategies to stop this from happening. They will test whether follicular helper T cells can be used as an early indication of the autoimmune response in Type 1 diabetes.

Background to research

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system, responsible for protecting us from viruses and bacteria, attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. In order to stop this from happening, we need to understand what causes that immune attack. Identifying the specific cells of the immune system that are responsible would mean that new therapies that target these cells and stop the attack could be developed.

Professor Lucy Walker and her team have recently found that a particular type of immune cell called a follicular helper T cell, is found in higher numbers in mice with diabetes and in people with Type 1 diabetes. They now need to investigate these follicular helper T cells further, to understand how they might contribute to the development of Type 1 diabetes.

Research aims

Professor Walker and her colleagues will study the underlying biology of how follicular helper T cells contribute to the development of Type 1 diabetes. They want to know if the number of follicular helper T cells in the blood could serve as an early indication of the autoimmune attack which causes Type 1 diabetes. The team will test a range of drugs that they predict may be particularly useful against these follicular helper T cells, including a new drug that has just been developed and is due to be trialed in new onset Type 1 diabetes.

The researchers have already identified that diabetes can be induced in mice by injecting these follicular helper T cells. They will use this system to see which drugs can interfere with the development of Type 1 diabetes, in order to reveal new strategies for suppressing the condition.

Finally, Professor Walker will test whether the characteristics of these follicular helper T cells, or their number, could be used to identify people that are genetically at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

In order to develop effective treatments for people with Type 1 diabetes, the underlying immune attack that leads to Type 1 diabetes needs to be fully understood – this study will do just that. If follicular helper T cells are found to be important in the development of Type 1 diabetes, it could lead to the development of new therapies that target the cells. They could also be used as an indication that the autoimmune response is happening early on.

£258,783 of this funding has been provided by Tesco
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