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Untangling different lines of the immune system’s attack

Project summary

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-making beta cells. Dr Matthew Johnson and his team will study a rare type of diabetes that could help us better understand why the immune system turns on beta cells, and how this process may differ between people. This could pave the way towards new treatments that protect the pancreas from harm in people with or at risk of type 1 diabetes.

Background to research

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Scientists think different parts of the immune system can be involved in launching the attack. But we don’t yet fully understand this, or how the immune attack may differ between people.  

Currently, scientists are testing and developing new treatments, called immunotherapies, which aim to halt the immune attack and protect beta cells. But to make these treatments more effective, and to make sure they can benefit everyone with or at risk of type 1 diabetes, we need to better understand all the different ways the immune system can attack.   

Dr Matthew Johnson has been looking at a rare type of diabetes, called monogenic autoimmune diabetes. In this type, only a single error in the DNA is responsible for the attack on beta cells. Dr Johnson has developed a new way to study the immune systems of people with this type of diabetes, to identify the different ways their immune systems attack. Now, he hopes to build on this work to pave the ways towards tests that could unravel the different immune processes that at the root of type 1 diabetes.  

Research aims

Dr Johnson and his team will build up a unique bank of DNA samples from people with this form of diabetes across the globe based on a new testing method. This method only needs a small amount of DNA taken from people at their routine doctors’ appointments, which makes testing much simpler and cheaper to run. This means our researchers will be able to study a larger group of people than ever before.  

They’ll then use their new test to accurately study their immune systems and reveal the exact immune causes of their diabetes. They hope this will provide insights into the immune attack on beta cells in type 1 diabetes.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

This research could lay the groundwork for recognising the multitude of different ways the immune attack happens in type 1 diabetes. This could lead to more effective and tailored immunotherapies, to stop type 1 diabetes in its track, delay, or even prevent the condition entirely. 

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