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Research spotlight – a vaccine for Type 1 diabetes

Research in the lab is helping to develop new treatments

The state of play

Type 1 diabetes happens when someone’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in their pancreas, leaving them unable to produce the insulin they need to live.

Current treatments for Type 1 diabetes involve replacing lost insulin through injections or insulin pumps. But this doesn't treat the cause of Type 1 diabetes - the immune attack.

Stopping the immune attack

If we could prevent the immune attack, scientists believe you can prevent Type 1 diabetes. And it was our scientists led by Professor Gianfranco Bottazzo who, in 1979, added vital evidence to this theory.

Just 20 years later our then Clinical Fellow, Professor Mark Peakman, found key molecules involved in the immune attack and began
working toward the first potential vaccine.

Our researchers are now developing treatments that target the parts of the immune system responsible for destroying insulin-producing cells, leaving the ‘good’ parts - that we need to fight illness or infection - intact. This sort of treatment is called immunotherapy.

If successful, it would effectively mean a vaccine for Type 1 diabetes - stopping people at risk from ever developing the condition.

Immunotherapies could also be used to stop Type 1 diabetes in its tracks in those newly diagnosed.

We know that when people are first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, they can still have up to 40 per cent of their insulin-producing cells remaining. Over the next few months or years these are gradually destroyed.

But in the future, immunotherapies could protect these remaining cells, helping people to carry on making some of their own insulin. This would make blood glucose levels easier to manage and could reduce the risk of developing serious complications down the line.

The Type 1 diabetes Immunotherapy Consortium

To take us closer to making immunotherapies a reality, we invested £2.8 million into the Type 1 diabetes Immunotherapy Consortium in partnership with JDRF (with support from Tesco) in 2014. It brings together researchers across the UK to develop and test new immunotherapies, and speed up progress.

Expert insight into Type 1 vaccine trials

Dr Tim Tree, at King’s College London, will set up a UK-wide network of specialist labs and bring together experts in immunology. They'll examining blood samples from UK immunotherapy trials and carrying out state-of-the-art studies of their safety and effectiveness.

Dr Tree hopes to improve the sharing of knowledge that can improve the design of future immunotherapy trials.

A new ADDRESS for Type 1 trial recruitment

Professor Desmond Johnston, at Imperial College London, is working with researchers across the UK to expand ADDRESS-2: a database of information and biological samples from people with newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetes.

The database helps to recruit people with Type 1 diabetes to UK clinical trials, to advance the development of immunotherapies.

New teams for vaccine trials

Professor Colin Dayan, at Cardiff University, is setting up a network of 15 Type 1 vaccine research teams across the UK. The teams will help recruit to and run clinical trials of new immunotherapies, and train future trial leaders.

This will increase the UK’s ability to carry out clinical trials of immunotherapies and allow many more people with Type 1 diabetes to take part.

That's not all

We're supporting even more scientists across the UK to improve our understanding of the immune attack and find ways to stop it. Here's a couple of highlights.

Finding early signs of Type 1 diabetes

Professor Lucy Walker has found that a specific type of immune cell can trigger Type 1 diabetes in the lab, and is more common in people with the condition. She is now looking at whether these cells could be an early indication of Type 1 diabetes and if new treatments could be developed to stop them.

Small molecules to stop the immune attack

One type of immune cell involved in the immune attack are called T cells. T cells attack five specific molecules on insulin-producing cells. Dr Parth Narendran is hoping to identify the exact regions of these molecules that T cells recognise. This detailed information could help scientists develop new immunotherapies.

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