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Research on tackling the root cause of type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes happens when the immune system attacks insulin-making beta cells meaning the pancreas can’t produce the insulin we all need to live.    

Mahn sitting on the bed during the immunotherapy trial
Mahn taking part in an immunotherapy trial

In 1979, Diabetes UK scientists, led by Professor Gianfranco Bottazzo, found evidence that preventing this immune system attack could stop type 1 diabetes.   

What are immunotherapies?

The discovery sparked work on the first treatments, known as immunotherapies, that aim to re-educate the immune system and stop it destroying beta cells.   

We’re working towards a future where immunotherapies will be used to protect the pancreas from an immune attack, so we can:

  • Prevent type 1 diabetes from developing in people at high risk
  • Slow the progress of type 1 in newly diagnosed people so they can make their own insulin for longer
  • And, one day, form part of a cure.   

The UK Type 1 Diabetes Research Consortium

So that more people with or at risk of type 1 diabetes can access immunotherapies quicker, we invested £3.1 million to set up the UK Type 1 Diabetes Research Consortium in partnership with JDRF in 2015. The consortium has:   

  • Set up 27 specialist research centres and expert teams across the UK to test immunotherapies in clinical trials.   
  • Increased how many people with type 1 can take part in clinical trials five-fold, so more trials can happen more quickly.    
  • Investigated how immunotherapy treatments work and who they work best for to match the right people to the right trial.    

Professor Colin Dayan, co-lead of the consortium explained:

"We’ve changed the landscape in the UK into one where we can run many more trials and recruit to them quickly. We couldn’t do this before. I think this will open the floodgates to finding more drugs that work, and we’ll see things take off.”    

Mahn Singh took part in a clinical trial, which ran through the consortium, shortly after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 11 years old. His father Harj said:   

“My hope is that the immunotherapy could help him keep the insulin-making cells he has still got. That’ll make things so much easier for him day-to-day. He’s not having the lows, he’s not having the highs, and he’s living as close to a normal life as possible.”  

A milestone moment that shaped our future research  

ELSA researchers, Professor Parth Narendran and Dr Lauren Quinn

In 2022, the world’s first type 1 immunotherapy drug, teplizumab, was approved in the US. It can delay the onset of type 1 diabetes in people at high risk of the condition. Now we’re working with the NHS to see it approved for use in the UK and funding research into other promising immunotherapies.   

To get type 1 immunotherapies to the right people, we need a way of finding those who are at risk of developing type 1 in the future. In 2022, with JDRF we launched a UK-first type 1 screening trial, known as ELSA.    

It’s screening 20,000 children for signs in the blood that show the immune system is primed to attack the pancreas.   

It will help us learn more about how a type 1 diabetes screening programme for children in the UK could work. And could lay the groundwork for routine, widespread screening moving us one step closer to preventing type 1 diabetes entirely.  

Professor Parth Narendran, University of Birmingham, leads the ELSA study. He said: 

“For more than 100 years, people living with type 1 diabetes have relied on insulin to treat the condition, but tremendous progress with drugs that target the immune system is ushering in a new era for type 1 diabetes.   

“Diabetes UK have been pivotal in shoring up the potential of these new treatments by supporting immunotherapy clinical trials and readying the UK through a type 1 screening programme. The foundations are in place and the possibility of unleashing the benefits to change the lives of people with or at risk of type 1 diabetes in the UK is in sight.”

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