In type 1 diabetes insulin-making beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. Dr Long will study a specific protein on beta cells that gets attacked, called zinc transporter 8. This could give scientists a better understanding of what’s happening in the immune system when the condition develops and what influences its progression.
Background to research
Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system attacks insulin-making beta cells. Scientists know that there are specific proteins on the beta cells that the immune system homes in on. One of these is called zinc transporter 8 (ZnT8).
When the immune system starts to go rogue in type 1 diabetes it makes molecules called autoantibodies. These are designed to attach onto specific parts of beta cells, including ZnT8, and alert the immune system that the cell should be destroyed.
Dr Anna Long believes that differences in the features of ZnT8 autoantibodies might help explain why type 1 diabetes can vary so much from person to person. For instance, why some develop the condition when they’re very young, and some in adulthood. And why some people’s beta cells are destroyed much more rapidly than others.
Dr Long aims to work out if differences in ZnT8 autoantibodies are related to when and how quickly beta cells are destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes. To do this, Dr Long’s team will study blood samples collected from 70 people before and after they were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and look for any changes in ZnT8 autoantibodies.
They will also investigate if these autoantibodies could be used to help predict how quickly type 1 diabetes progresses, and who will be able to hang on to more of their own insulin for longer after their diagnosis. They’ll use urine samples from 500 people with type 1 diabetes and measure how much of their own insulin they are still able to produce. They’ll measure if the amount of insulin people can make is related to characteristics of their ZnT8 autoantibodies.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
This research could give us a greater understanding of the immune system attack in type 1 diabetes and the factors that influence the severity and timing of beta cell destruction.
By finding out ways to predict who will lose beta cells more rapidly or slowly, scientists could also identify people who are most suitable to take part in clinical trials of new treatments, called immunotherapies, that aim to stall the immune attack. Having the right participants in these trials could make them more successful, ensuring these breakthrough treatments become available sooner.