We’ve joined forces with our friends at JDRF to award an exciting new research fellowship to Dr Anna Long, at the University of Bristol.
Our fellowships help make sure the best early-career scientists want to research diabetes and help them grow into future leaders in their field, so their work can benefit people with diabetes for decades to come.
We spoke to Dr Long to find out all about her research and the difference she hopes it will make.
Where my passion started
I knew from the age of 16 that I wanted to do medical research. I have a great uncle who has diabetes, so I was aware of the condition and how serious it can be.
That interest led me to do a PhD in diabetes. It was based on the Bart's Oxford (BOX) study – the longest-running family study of Type 1 diabetes anywhere in the world. It’s dedicated to developing ways to identify people who are at risk of Type 1 diabetes, with the hope of being able to prevent people from developing it in the future.
While working on BOX, I was always thinking about the people behind the study – like the children being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at two years old, or the siblings who all develop the condition. Ultimately, I just wanted to make a real difference for those people, some of whom we’d collected data on for 30 years.
Slow-progressors vs late-starters
The idea behind my current fellowship spun out of the fact that we think 50% of Type 1 diabetes is actually diagnosed in adults. I want to understand when the autoimmune process that destroys insulin-producing cells in these people actually starts. And then, to work out whether people who get Type 1 diabetes as adults might be able to control their immune system in a special way, to actually slow down the attack on the pancreas and delay when they get Type 1. I’ll be carrying on using data from the BOX study to investigate this.
One of the things I do in the lab is look at islet autoantibodies. These are important markers of Type 1 diabetes that tell us that an autoimmune process has started. They’re a lot easier to measure than the rest of the immune system – we can test for them in the blood.
By looking at when islet autoantibodies appear, we can tell that in some people diagnosed as adults, the immune attack that causes Type 1 diabetes progresses slowly from childhood. In others, it starts later in life and progresses quickly.
We’ll also look at the immune cells of these ‘slow-progressors’ and ‘late-starters’ to see if there are differences. To do that, we have to isolate the immune cells from their blood samples and put them in a cosy incubator with certain things that stimulate them. We then see how well specialised ‘police’ cells – that control the activity of the rest of the immune system – are able to counter that activation. We read this off the fluorescent light that cells emit when they flow past lasers in a very clever machine. This is called flow cytometry.
Making a difference
What I discover might help us understand how to delay or even prevent the condition. If I can identify important factors from the immune system that naturally protect against Type 1 diabetes, this could inform therapies to slow or stop the immune process.
These types of treatments – which are just targeting the specific bits of the immune system that are trying to destroy the insulin producing cells – are potentially trickier but could be transformational in the future.
Funding for research is essential
Funding from Diabetes UK has been absolutely vital for my research. They supported me early on to spend two years in Seattle. While I was there, I learnt about how to measure the function of the immune system and how well it’s working. That set me up with the skills I’m going to use in this new fellowship.
Beyond the personal support I’ve had, Diabetes UK have been pivotal to the BOX study and keeping it going. I don’t think I could answer the questions I’m trying to answer without BOX. I’m really taking advantage of the fact that it has been such a long-running study – we’ve got freezers full of samples upstairs from three generations of families.
The fact the Diabetes UK and JDRF are now coming together to back me – it’s incredible, I’m still pinching myself a little bit. That they’ve both decided to invest in me really excites me for the future. I’m looking forward to the next five years and hoping to give back to people with diabetes, and repay that investment.
It’s your support that makes research happen
We often think of research as a jigsaw puzzle and you don’t always know which bits you’re missing or which bits are going to be very important. So the more research that can happen, the more information we get. Eventually we’re able to piece together this picture of why diabetes happens and how we can best help people who have the condition.
Your continued support is what allows research to go forward, and that is the only way that we’re going to be able to improve treatments and eventually find a cure. Research is an expensive activity. So I really value every bake sale and every run that allows us to carry on doing what we are doing.