Savefor later Page saved! You can go back to this later in your Diabetes and Me Close

Inside the lab: Shape-shifting cells and beta cell transplants

We invest over £6 million every year into new research, to transform the lives of people with diabetes. Here we take a closer look at a project looking at stem cells and beta cell transplants that is just getting off the ground.

Dr Chloe Rackham is a Lecturer in Diabetes in the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Science at the University of Exeter. With our funding, she’s investigating how to improve the outcomes of a pioneering treatment for people living with type 1 diabetes.

Dr Rackham said:

"I live with type 1 diabetes myself and understand the daily burden of managing blood sugar levels, insulin doses, exercise and the many factors in our daily lives that influence blood sugar."

Inflammation and immune attacks

Inflammation happens to cells when your body is under attack. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This can lead to the destruction of many beta cells, which means that not enough insulin can be produced to control blood sugar levels.

People with type 1 diabetes can sometimes be treated by moving beta cells from a donor pancreas into their own body, known as an islet transplant.

Dr Rackham said:

"Islet transplants to people who already live with type 1 diabetes offer the possibility to restore normal blood sugar levels either without the need for insulin at all, or with far less insulin, while also reducing the risk of severe hypos."

But islet transplants aren’t always successful. One of the reasons is that the donated beta cells can also become inflamed and damaged after transplantation.

Stem cells have an amazing ability help heal cells in damaged body parts. Stem cells are cells with the special ability to become any other type of cell in the body. A type of stem cell, called MSCs, are able to repair injured cells because they can sense inflammation. This means that MSCs might be able to help inflamed beta cells. This is where Dr Rackham comes in.

She said:

"We don’t yet fully understand the processes through which MSCs improve the ability of islets to protect themselves from these attacks. I am motivated to find this out so that we can define how best to use MSCs with islet transplants to help people living with type 1 diabetes. I am also motivated to understand better how we can use MSCs to help delay or even prevent type 1 diabetes from developing in those who are at risk."

Dr Rackham’s project is looking at what happens to MSCs and beta cells when they’re exposed to inflammation in the lab. Her team are looking for changes in the DNA of MSCs that follow inflammation as type 1 develops and after an islet transplant. They want to figure out which changes trigger MSCs to help to fight inflammation and reduce beta cell damage.

Removing the immune targets on beta cells

Dr Rackham said:

"Experiments have shown that MSCs can help the insulin-producing islet beta cells to function better and to survive after inflammation attacks that mimic those seen during the development of type 1 diabetes, and after islet transplants to people who’ve lived with type 1 for a long time."

Dr Rackham also highlighted some of the progress she’d like to see over the next decade for diabetes care and management.

"Together, my community of researchers are working tirelessly to make sure that we can offer beta cell replacement therapies to the greatest possible number of people with type 1 diabetes. Strategies to reduce islet beta cell inflammation immediately after transplantation will undoubtedly contribute to this goal and I would be delighted to see many more people being offered the option of a transplant. I also hope to see giant leaps forward towards delaying or even preventing those at risk from developing type 1 diabetes and hope that our research into MSCs will help in achieving these goals."

Outside of the lab

In her spare time, Dr Rackham enjoys cycling, coastal walks, running, paddle boarding, beautiful plants, cooking and listening to indie, folk and reggae music. She also loves playing with her cats.

Dr Rackham is incredibly grateful to the many supporters of Diabetes UK who make it possible for her and many other dedicated colleagues and researchers to pursue their scientific goals.

"Without your support we wouldn’t be able to help improve treatment options and quality of life for people living with diabetes, nor strive towards our goals to prevent type 1 diabetes. I appreciate every mile you have walked, run, cycled and all the other extraordinary challenges taken on to fundraise for Diabetes UK. A wholehearted thank you to everyone who has contributed to these efforts and supported Diabetes UK and our research."

Find out more about the research projects we’re funding.

Back to Top
Brand Icons/Telephonecheck - FontAwesomeicons/tickicons/uk