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Helping the immune system tackle Type 1 diabetes

Project summary

Immune cells called Tregs police the immune system and stop it from attacking healthy cells. But in Type 1 diabetes, this goes wrong. Professor Federica Marelli-Berg has found a drug that helps Tregs work better. She’ll test this drug to see if it can prevent or slow the progression of Type 1 diabetes. In the future, this could lead to life-changing new treatments for people with or at risk of the condition.

Background to research

To protect us from illnesses, our immune system destroys harmful bacteria and viruses. But some rogue immune cells mistakenly attack our own body. One type of immune cell, called regulatory T cells (or Tregs), are responsible for policing the immune system, making sure it doesn’t attack healthy cells.

In Type 1 diabetes, rogue immune cells attack insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. At the same time, the levels of Tregs and these ‘bad’ immune cells are out of balance, so this policing system doesn’t work properly.

Scientists are developing treatments called immunotherapies, to stop the Type 1 immune attack. One immunotherapy being tested involves transplanting ‘police’ Tregs into people with Type 1 diabetes, restoring the immune system’s balance. But very high numbers of Tregs are needed to have an effect, which would make Treg therapy expensive and impractical.

Professor Marelli-Berg wants to investigate a possible solution. She has found an existing drug that helps the Tregs we already have to get to the pancreas. Once they’re in the pancreas, they could stop beta cell from being destroyed.

Research aims

Professor Marelli-Berg will test this drug to see if it can prevent or stop Type 1 diabetes by helping Tregs travel to the pancreas. Mice who have or are at high risk of Type 1 diabetes will be given different doses of the drug. The research team will see if the drug can prevent or slow the destruction of the mice’s beta cells. In mice with Type 1 diabetes, they’ll also see if the drug improves blood glucose control.

Professor Marelli-Berg will then find out if this drug could be used to improve the Treg immunotherapy treatment currently being tested. She’ll see if treating Tregs with the drug before they’re transplanted can help them travel to the pancreas, which means less cells would be needed for an effective treatment.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

When a person is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, they can still have up to 40% of their beta cells intact. Protecting these beta cells could make a big difference, making the condition easier to manage and keeping people healthier for longer. If successful, this existing drug could be used to help prevent Type 1 diabetes or protect remaining beta cells in people newly diagnosed.

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