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Researching pancreas attack proteins

Project summary

In type 1 diabetes the immune system attacks and destroy insulin-making cells in the pancreas. But researchers don’t know why the immune system attacks in this way. Professor Noel Morgan plans to test the proteins known as SIRPα and CD47 which kick into action when beta cells are being destroyed. 

Background to research

Type 1 diabetes happens when the immune system attacks insulin-making beta cells in the pancreas. But we don’t know exactly why this happens or how to stop it.  We do know that beta cells ‘talk’ with the immune system during an attack to try and stop what’s going on. One of the ways beta cells do this is by switching on proteins. 

In earlier work funded by Diabetes UK, Professor Noel Morgan looked at this in more detail.  He found that the type 1 diabetes immune attack changed the activity of a protein (called SIRPα). He also discovered that this protein pairs up with another protein (called CD47). By working together these two proteins appear to help the beta cells fight off the immune attack and to survive for longer.  

Professor Morgan also checked the results by looking at it the other way round. He found that lower levels of SIRPα protein meant that beta cells died more quicky. He now plans to delve deeper to unravel exactly how SIRPα and CD47 proteins protect beta cells.

Research aims

Professor Morgan will use genetic engineering techniques to study how the SIRPα and CD47 proteins work together in the beta cells and then what happens when they do.   

Firstly, he’ll do his experiments using human beta cells grown in the laboratory. He’ll then check the results by using pancreas samples from people with type 1 diabetes. This help the scientists to be sure that what they’re seeing in the lab also applies to people with type 1 diabetes.   

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Professor Morgan’s research will help us to understand what’s going on in the pancreas as type 1 diabetes develops. Specially, it will help give scientists a deeper understanding of how certain proteins could help beta cells to escape the immune attack. 

In the future, this may lead to new treatments that help to protect beta cells and slow down the development of type 1 diabetes. This would mean people with the condition could more produce more of their own insulin. We know holding into more of your own beta cells has lots of benefits – giving people steadier blood sugar levels, fewer hypos and reducing their risk of diabetes complications years down the line.  

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