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Fighting inflammation with shape-shifting cells

Project summary

When the immune system attacks the pancreas in type 1 diabetes, the body responds with inflammation which can damage insulin-producing beta cells. Transplants of pancreas cells, called islet transplants, can be used to treat some people with type 1 diabetes, but they don’t always work. Dr Chloe Rackham wants to understand how shape-shifting stem cells can protect transplanted cells from damage caused by inflammation. This could help to make islet transplants more successful in the future and could open up ways to delay or prevent type 1 diabetes. 

Background to research

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 cause the beta cells to become inflamed, which injures them so they can’t release insulin properly. 

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. However, this treatment isn’t always successful. One of the reasons is inflammation, which can spread into the donated beta cells and damages them as well.

Stem cells have an amazing ability to shape-shift into any type of cell found in the body, and also to heal cells in damaged body parts. 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.

Research aims

Dr Rackham and her PhD student will expose MSCs and beta cells to inflammation in the lab. They’ll look 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, and how. 

Knowing more about how MSCs repair injured beta cells will help researchers to understand how they can be used to treat people with or at risk of type 1 diabetes.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

When islet transplants work properly, they help people with type 1 diabetes to produce some of their own insulin again. This gives people steadier blood sugar levels and can slash the amount of insulin people need to take, or even allow some to stop using it altogether for a time. 

Knowing if and how MSCs could help to maximise the benefits of islet transplants and could mean that more people who live with type 1 diabetes can be treated with a life-changing transplant. Longer term, understanding how MSCs behave might lead to new treatments which delay or prevent people at risk of type 1 diabetes from developing the condition.

Project supported in memory of Samuel Brake
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