A type of immune cell, called T cells, help us fight infections and heal wounds. As we age T cells can become ‘zombie’-like, where they shut down but won’t die. This can weaken our immune system. Dr Sian Henson has found that people with type 2 diabetes have a higher number of zombie T cells. She will run experiments to figure out why and how zombie T cells in type 2 diabetes are different. In the future, this could lead to new drugs that keep T cells working, to keep people with type 2 diabetes healthy.
Background to research
The cycle of life and death of the cells in our bodies is an essential and normal process. But as we get older our cells can enter a zombie-like state, where even though they’re no longer needed, they don’t die.
T cells are important cells in our immune system. They help us fight infections and heal wounds. Dr Sian Henson has shown that people with type 2 diabetes have a higher number of ‘zombie’ T cells compared to people without the condition. This means their wounds don’t heal as quickly and they’re more at risk of infections.
Dr Henson believes that increased levels of inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes, rather than ageing, could be leading to the higher number of zombie T cells. If this is the case, she believes it could be easier to treat T cells and keep them healthy.
Dr Henson wants to better understand how zombie T cells that appear in people with type 2 diabetes are different than in those without the condition. She will first investigate how the cells become zombies. She’ll mix healthy T cells with glucose and molecules that cause inflammation, to mimic the conditions we see in people who are at risk of type 2 diabetes. She will then look for changes in how the T cells function.
T cells need to move around the body to fight infections and heal wounds. So Dr Henson and her team want to see if the zombie T cells that develop in people with type 2 diabetes move differently to those in people without type 2 diabetes. To do this, they will stick a radioactive tag on zombie T cells taken from people with and without type 2 diabetes, and then put these cells in mice to track their movement.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
People with type 2 diabetes can have problems with their immune system, putting them at risk of infections and serious complications like foot ulcers. This research will help us to understand why.
In future, these insights could lead to new treatments that could be given to people with type 2 diabetes during an infection or when a wound hasn’t healed, to help them stay healthy and avoid complications.