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Do our genes influence when we develop type 1 diabetes?

Project summary

Some people develop type 1 diabetes very quickly, but in others, the immune attack that causes type 1 diabetes progresses slowly. Professor Kathleen Gillespie and her PhD student will look for genetic differences between these groups of people to find out why this is. In the future, this could lead to life-changing treatments to delay or prevent type 1 diabetes.

Background to research

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. In some people, this attack progresses slowly (termed as ‘slow progressors’). But in those who develop type 1 diabetes as young children it progresses quickly (‘rapid progressors’).

At the very early stages of type 1 diabetes – before you’re diagnosed – you develop signals which tell us that the immune system has started attacking the beta cells in your pancreas. These signals are called autoantibodies.

Professor Kathleen Gillespie and her team have been studying the differences between slow and rapid progressors. They’ve found that over time, slow progressors can lose some of their autoantibodies. They think this may be a sign that their immune system is able to switch off the immune response behind type 1 diabetes, and they now want to figure out how this happens.

Research aims

Professor Gillespie wants to understand at a genetic level the differences between ‘slow progressors’ and ‘rapid progressors’, and how these differences might help some people to delay a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes until later in adulthood.

The research team have honed in on specific genes which are involved in keeping the immune system healthy. These genes appear to have different changes in slow versus rapid progressors. They plan to find the genetic changes which are important in switching these genes on and off, by looking at immune cells donated from people who are slow and rapid progressors.

They’ll compare the genetic code in both groups and once they’ve identified differences, they’ll move on to look at these in DNA from a wide range of people with type 1 diabetes. This will help them work out whether the genetic changes they’ve found might be linked to how quickly type 1 diabetes progresses.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

This work could help us to understand why people who develop type 1 diabetes later on in their life are naturally protected against the condition for longer. This information could be used to develop new treatments that help to delay type 1 diabetes – giving people extra years free from the condition – or prevent it.

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