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Why do some people develop Type 1 diabetes more slowly?

Project summary

In some people, the immune attack that causes Type 1 diabetes can progress slowly from childhood. In other people, it can start later in life and progress quickly.

Dr Anna Long will study the immune systems of these different groups to find out why some people develop Type 1 diabetes more slowly. In the future, this could lead to life-changing treatments to delay or prevent Type 1 diabetes.

Background to research

In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This attack happens in stages and can sometimes take decades to progress to a diagnosis of Type 1.  

At the very early stages of Type 1 diabetes, people develop signals that their immune system is attacking healthy cells, called autoantibodies. These signals suggest that their pancreas is under attack, although there are no symptoms and their blood glucose levels remain normal.

The age at which this first signals appear can vary. Dr Long has found a group of ‘slow progressors’ who developed autoantibodies at least 10 years before they were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Whereas, ‘late starters’ develop autoantibodies as teenagers or adults, then quickly progress to a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes.

Research aims

Dr Long wants to find out why the speed that someone develops Type 1 diabetes can vary. Using data and blood samples from people who’ve taken part in long-running Type 1 diabetes studies, she’ll look for ‘slow progressors’ and ‘late starters’.

The research team will then study their autoantibodies and the immune cells responsible for attacking the pancreas. They’ll see if there are any differences between the two groups, to shed light on why ‘slow progressors’ might be able to supress their immune system and slow down the attack.

Dr Long and her team will also study genes linked to rapidly progressing Type 1 diabetes. They’ll develop a genetic risk score: a calculator that takes information from these genes to help identify those at highest risk of progressing to Type 1 diabetes quickly.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

If we can find out why some people develop Type 1 more slowly, it could help scientists understand which parts of the immune system naturally protect against Type 1 diabetes. This could lead to life-changing treatments that delay Type 1 diabetes – giving people extra years free from the condition – or prevent it.

This research is co-funded with JDRF. Diabetes UK are committing £341,796 to support this project.
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