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Find out the latest news about JDRF's research and fundraising events.

Displaying immune therapies


Taking control of the immune system

JDRF-funded researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have managed to stop the immune system attack on beta cells that causes type 1 in mice.

In the study which was published in the journal Diabetes this week, researchers found that injecting mice with immune cells called macrophages stopped the attack on beta cells.

Macrophages are a type of immune cell that can either protect cells from an immune attack or be the attacker, depending on which signals they receive from other cells around them.  The first part of this study, which was led by Dr Robert Harris, identified the signals that macrophages need to become protective.

The team were then able to use these signals to coax macrophages into the protective mode. The protective macrophages were then injected into mice whose immune system had begun to attack beta cells but were not yet insulin dependent.  Following the injection of macrophages, mice were less likely to develop type 1 and most could maintain their own insulin production.

 In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Finding a way to stop this attack early on may help to protect the remaining beta cells and allow people with the condition to continue producing at least some of their own insulin.

Maebh Kelly, Research Communication Officer at JDRF said ‘Understanding how cells in the immune system are directed to attack or defend other cells is an important step towards the development of immune therapies that can halt the development of type 1. Dr Harris’ research has provided us with new insight into the signals that tell the immune system what to do and how we can control them’.


Resetting the immune system

Congratulations to Professor Mark Peakman, from King’s College London who today launches a new project to develop an immune therapy for type 1.

Professor Peakman and his team have been working on a new drug that can supress the immune response that causes type 1 but leave the rest of the immune system unaffected. This project, which is supported by the Wellcome Trust aims to complete the laboratory testing of the drug and bring it to human trials by 2014.

The drug, called MultiPepTIDe, contains different peptides that are usually involved in the immune response that causes type 1 but researchers believe that they can use these peptides to switch off this immune response and effectively ‘reset’ the immune system.

MultiPepTIDe could stop the part of the immune system that attacks beta cells and protect the remaining beta cells from destruction so that they can continue producing insulin. An added benefit of this approach is that the drug selectively stops the part of the immune system that attacks beta cells and leaves the rest of the immune system intact so that the body can still fight infections.

As part of the same development programme, Professor Peakman is currently working on a JDRF funded project that is also trying to retrain the immune system not to attack beta cells. This drug, called Proinsulin Peptide, has already completed safety trials in humans and the team are now beginning a second clinical trial to determine whether there are signs of clinical efficacy. 

Professor Peakman sees the Wellcome Trust award as complementary to the current JDRF-funded programme. “Getting any new drug to the stage of testing in man is exciting, and we have started on that pathway with the proinsulin peptide. That has helped us to secure the Wellcome Trust support for the next iteration of peptide-based therapeutics, called MultiPepT1De, in which we will combine several of the key beta cell peptides into a single drug”.


Beta cells grow up

JDRF-funded scientists at Harvard University have provided new insights into to how stem cells develop to become insulin-producing beta cells.

The team, lead by Professor Doug Melton, have identified a marker which allows them to distinguish mature beta cells (which can produce insulin) from immature beta cells (which cannot).  The study is published in this month’s issue of the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology.

Many scientists are working on ways to turn stem cells into beta cells. So far, they have managed to turn stem cells into immature beta cells in the lab, that when transplanted into mice will become mature beta cells that release insulin in response to glucose.  Although this is excellent progress, transplanting immature beta cells into humans is not ideal as there is a chance that some of the immature beta cells may not develop as expected, and instead begin multiplying out of control, causing cancer. For this reason, scientists want to be able to make fully mature beta cells in the laboratory which would then be much more suitable for transplantation.

Professor Melton’s work takes us a step further towards making mature beta cells in the lab. They have identified a protein that is found in mature beta cells but not in immature non- insulin producing ones. The protein, called urocortin-3, can now be used as a marker of mature insulin producing cells and will help scientists identify mature beta cells more easily when testing out new  ways to make them from stem cells. 

Rachel Connor, Head of Research Communication at JDRF said ‘Stem cells provide exciting possibilities for studying type 1 diabetes and potentially treating the condition in the future. Professor Melton’s study helps us understand more about how beta cells develop and crucially, also provides a way to efficiently test if new techniques for making mature beta cells from stem cells are working effectively’.


Behind the headlines: An end to jabs?

In the letters pages of yesterday's Mirror newspaper, you may have seen a letter to Dr Miriam asking about a vaccine that can cure type 1.

Dr Miriam gave a great response explaining that although there is a vaccine in the early stages of clinical trials, a lot more trials need to be done to prove that it works before it can be made available to people with type 1.

In the trial Dr Miriam talked about, JDRF-funded researchers are trying to determine if a fragment of molecule from insulin producing beta cells called ‘proinsulin peptide’ could be used to retrain the immune system not to attack beta cells.

So far, the research team have conducted a small safety trial in people with type 1 diabetes to make sure the treatment is safe for use in humans. This trial showed that the treatment was safe and there were also signs that it may help stop the immune system attacking beta cells. If future trials show that it works well, this treatment may be able to prevent type 1 from progressing in people who have recently been diagnosed with the condition.

Professor Mark Peakman, who is leading the trial, said ‘We are very excited about the proinsulin peptide. Results from our first trials showed that the therapy was safe and we also saw promising signs that it may be effective in turning off the immune response that attacks beta cells. We are now recruiting for a larger study to test if the vaccine does turn the immune response in people with type 1 diabetes’.

If you are interested in finding out more about taking part in these, and other clinical trials, read more about current clinical trials.


Beta cells: divide and conquer?

JDRF- funded scientists at the University of Pittsburgh in America have uncovered a new way to grow human beta cells in the lab.

The team led by Professor Andrew Stewart, were able to get human beta cells to divide and make more cells. Not only that, but they then managed to stop the cells dividing again. The research was published in this month’s issue of the journal Diabetes.

The researchers added genes called cdk and cyclin d into the beta cells. These genes make the cells divide and are usually switched off in beta cells. To deliver these genes into the cells they used a virus that can get into cells easily. Once they had enough beta cells, they added a drug to the cells which switched off the virus and stopped the cells dividing.

In the body, beta cells divide very slowly or not at all so when the immune system attacks them, the cells are not replaced. Usually in type 1 diabetes there are a few beta cells remaining and if scientists could make these cells divide they could replace the cells destroyed by the immune system.

It is also difficult for scientists to study human beta cells in the lab because beta cells are in such short supply. So making more of them will allow scientists to do more research towards finding a cure for type 1.

Although these researchers had previously shown that they could make beta cells divide, this latest study shows that they have developed a way to stop the cells dividing as well. This is particularly useful because the genes they used to make the cells divide are not usually switched on in beta cells - so when they are dividing a lot they are not identical to the beta cells in the body. Switching these genes off again makes them more similar to ‘real world’ beta cells, which means any discoveries scientists make using these cells  are more likely to be applicable to beta cells in the body.

Rachel Connor, Head of Research Communication at JDRF, said ‘These are very interesting results because it is often difficult for scientists to get human beta cells to study. Growing beta cells in the laboratory that are as similar as possible to those in our bodies will help type 1 diabetes researchers to test their ideas and develop new ways of treating type 1 much more effectively.’


Member of the Royal Family recognises JDRF research

We are delighted and excited to let you know that Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall will visit The Cambridge Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in February to learn more about the work of JDRF. She will meet with researchers who are working to prevent type 1 diabetes and its complications, as well as speaking to children with type 1 who have been involved with clinical trials.

Her Royal Highness will be welcomed by HM Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, Mrs Jane Lewin Smith JP, before touring the facility with Karen Addington, Chief Executive at JDRF, and Professor David Dunger, of The University of Cambridge.

The Duchess of Cornwall will also meet with Dr Roman Hovorka and Dr Tim Tree to learn about their JDRF funded research.  Dr Hovorka is working to develop a Closed Loop Artificial Pancreas whilst Dr Tree will be discussing the Diabetes Genes, Autoimmunity and Prevention (DGAP) Project. 

This visit will be a chance for Her Royal Highness to decide how she might like to be associated with JDRF in the future. We are delighted to have this opportunity to meet with her as she only works with charities that she has personally selected, and look forward to telling you more about the visit at a later date.


A killer link to type 1 diabetes

JDRF-funded researchers at Cardiff University have shown exactly how cells in the immune system attack the insulin producing beta cells causing type 1 diabetes for the first time.

The research team, led by Professor Andy Sewell were able to shed light on the way that a particular cell of the immune system, called killer T cells target beta cells for destruction. Their research was published today in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Nature Immunology.

Killer T cells in the pancreas are very difficult to study as it is not easy to separate them from other cells. Professor Sewell’s team have developed a completely new technique for separating these cells out from the crowd. Having isolated the killer T cells they were then able to ‘watch’ the attack on the beta cells, as you can see from the picture (the t-cells are red and the beta cells are green) This allowed them to examine exactly how the cells recognised one another in incredibly fine detail.

Killer T cells normally recognise viruses like the ‘flu’ virus in the body and destroy them. But Professor Sewell’s team have discovered that they attack beta cells in a slightly different way. This may be why the immune system’s usual safety checks that ensure healthy ‘self’ tissues are not attacked are unable to pick up and control this process in type 1 diabetes.

These findings are particularly important as how and why beta cells are destroyed is still unclear. A greater understanding of this mechanism will enable scientists to develop new drugs to halt the process - or even predict and prevent type 1 diabetes.

Rachel Connor, Head of Research Communication at JDRF said ‘We’re really excited to see the results of this work – this is the first time scientists have been able to study the fine detail of how killer T cells target insulin-producing cells in type 1 diabetes. Research like this will be fundamental to allowing scientists to develop new, specific treatments that can help people with type 1’.

Thanks to Susan Wong for providing the cells and Maja Wallberg for taking the pictures.


Behind the headlines: diabetes breakthrough raises hope of cure

You may have seen in the Daily Mirror this morning, a report that a new cure for diabetes may be on the way.

The article discussed a new research study which showed that it may be possible to ‘re-educate’ the immune system of people with type 1 diabetes, and halt the destruction of insulin producing beta-cells that causes type 1.

In the study, stem cells from umbilical cord blood were used to retrain cells in the immune system not to attack the pancreas. Immune cells were taken from the patient and grown together with stem cells from donor umbilical cord blood. The patients' own cells were then separated from the stem cells and returned back into their blood. Growing stem cells and immune cells together seems to help stop the immune cells attacking beta-cells when they are put back in the patient. The approach appears to show promise as the first patients tested were able to reduce the amount of insulin they needed after the treated immune cells were returned.

This exciting discovery is new innovative approach to treating diabetes and JDRF is very pleased to have been involved in funding this research.

However, this was a small clinical trial which involved only 15 people and although the results are exciting, it is still early days for this treatment. The main aim of the trial was to test the safety of the treatment in people with type 1. As the trial showed that the treatment is safe, the research team can now run a larger clinical trial to prove if it works.

The way in which the stem cells ‘educate’ the immune system is also still unclear and more research will need to be done to understand this process before the treatment is likely to be accepted in to clinical practice.

You can read the full article here


Putting type 1 in the picture

Mrs Chunjing Wang, who works at Birmingham University, has won JDRF’s first ever scientific photography competition. Her image (left) was judged to be both interesting and strikingly beautiful.

The photograph was taken through a microscope, using special fluorescent ‘tags’ to show up different features of an islet of Langerhans being attacked by immune cells.

Blue shows the insulin-producing cells in the islet, while green shows the immune cells which are attacking it. The red dots show cells which are multiplying – as these are mainly seen in green cells this image shows the scale of the immune attack.

The photograph had to fight off strong competition from a wide variety of images from other scientists working on type 1 diabetes related projects up and down the country.

Chunjing has a medical degree and masters degree from China. She is currently studying for a PhD in Dr Lucy Walker’s laboratory. This group is working to understand what makes the immune system attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas leading to type 1 diabetes, with funding from JDRF and other organizations.

The prize for the winning photograph is a £500 travel bursary. Describing what this will mean to her, Chunjing said “I am delighted that my image has won this travel bursary. I will now have the opportunity to travel to a scientific meeting where I can present my research findings and also keep up to date with what other researchers are doing.”

Scientific meetings are vital for scientists to exchange ideas and learn from each other. However, it can be difficult for scientists at the start of their careers, like Mrs Wang, to attend these meetings. This means that they may miss out on early opportunities to interact with other more established scientists, and hear from people working in fields slightly outside their own.

JDRF will be using all of the images entered into the competition over the coming months, through our website and publications to illustrate and explain stories about our research.


Be part of the Big Give Christmas Challenge!

Although it is only autumn, we want to turn your attention to the festive period early, as we are delighted to have been chosen to take part in the 2011 Big Give Christmas Challenge. It is a match-funding fundraising initiative which will help us to maximise the money you donate towards type 1 research. Being chosen to participate in the Health Sector Challenge means we can ensure your support will go further when you make donations to JDRF’s research into type 1!

Take a look at JDRF’s Big Give Profile to learn more about the research project we are asking people to support as part of the Big Give Challenge. The study is exploring the cause of the autoimmune reaction that occurs in type 1 diabetes, and the genetics behind the condition.

There are many ways you will be able to get involved in the run up to the Challenge, which takes place between 5 and 9 December. We will keep you posted as it gets nearer to Christmas, but in the meantime you can read up on the Big Give on their website 


Behind the headlines

You may have seen that the Sunday Express has today reported on a drug called Diapep 277. In the health section, the paper reports that the drug, which is still being developed, could prevent the autoimmune response which attacks the pancreas in people newly diagnosed with type 1.

This is an Interesting area of development, and it is good news that the study has reached phase III trials, but it is important to remember that these are still relatively early days, and it will be some years until the drug may benefit people newly diagnosed with the condition. There are still significant and necessary clinical and regulatory milestones that the drug must reach before it may become available.

We will be following the progress of the trials with interest and will let you know of its progress. For more information about JDRF’s research programme and the projects we fund, visit our research section.


Stem cells remember how to make insulin

JDRF-funded researchers in Israel have found that stem cells made from beta cells in the pancreas of adults have a ‘memory’ that makes them better able to produce insulin than other types of stem cell.

The team from Tel Aviv University, led by Shimon Efrat, published their discovery in the July issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Stem cells can be taken from either embryos or adults. Both types have the potential to turn into many different types of cell, including insulin-producing beta cells. However this latest study suggests that the source of the stem cells has more influence than previously thought. The genetic ‘memory’ of stem cells derived from the pancreas means the cells find it easier to turn into insulin-producing beta cells, making them a better option for treating for type 1 diabetes.

Scientists hope to be able to use these stem cells to grow new beta cells to replace those destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes. When coupled with therapies to prevent or block the immune system from attacking the newly introduced beta cells, this research offers a possible route to a cure for type 1. 

This project forms part of the JDRF research programme aiming to find ways to replace or regenerate insulin-producing beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes. You can read more here. 


Time for more T regulatory cells

A JDRF-funded clinical trial is recruiting volunteers in the US to test the safety and feasibility of using regulatory T cells as a therapy for type 1 diabetes.

T cells are an important part of your immune system and there are a number of different types. Killer T cells play a vital role in the autoimmune attack that causes type 1 diabetes. Normally, these cells are kept in check by regulatory T cells, but in someone with type 1 diabetes these two types of T cell are out of balance.

This Phase I trial, led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), aims to redress the balance by increasing the numbers of regulatory T cells. To do this, the researchers will first take blood samples from each volunteer. They will then isolate their T cells before multiplying them 1000-fold in the laboratory before infusing them back into the volunteer’s body.

If successful, this could pave the way for a Phase II trial testing whether the addition of regulatory T cells is able to stabilise the destruction of insulin producing beta cells.

Professor Stephen Gitelman, one of the lead investigators of the study at UCSF said: "For all these years, we have been looking outside of the patient to fight the autoimmune response that leads to type 1 diabetes, but now the answer may lie within the patients themselves."


Type 1 researchers follow gut feeling

Type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and as yet unknown environmental triggers. Scientists know that the environment in your gut can play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. However, they are not sure what effect the gut has on the autoimmune attack that destroys insulin-producing beta cells.

Now a research project funded by JDRF, published this month in the journal Diabetes, has shed light on how changes in the intestine can affect autoimmunity elsewhere in the body. 

The research team, led by Marika Falcone at the Experimental Diabetes Unit, San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan, collected biopsies from the small intestines of 12 people with type 1 diabetes, and compared them with samples from 17 people without the condition. They then counted the various types of immune cell present in the samples from each group.

In the samples from people with type 1 diabetes, the researchers discovered a significant reduction in the numbers of certain intestinal T regulatory cells – responsible for protecting against the autoimmune attack that causes type 1 diabetes.

Crucially, they found that the mechanism that creates these T cells in the gut had been disrupted. The researchers believe that this shows that the immune system environment in the intestine (partly responsible for maintaining a supply of good bacteria) is also instrumental in protecting beta cells in the pancreas. Further research is now needed to determine whether the disrupted mechanism has a genetic or environmental cause. 


JDRF partners with Selecta Biosciences to develop possible vaccine for type 1 diabetes

JDRF has announced a new research collaboration to support the development of a vaccine which may help better treat and potentially prevent type 1 diabetes.

The partnership with Selecta Biosciences will see JDRF provide expertise and financial support, with the goal of applying Selecta’s vaccine technology toward the development of vaccines for type 1 diabetes.

Selecta is working on a type of therapy called an ‘antigen-specific tolerogenic vaccine’. This is designed to specifically target the parts of the immune system that cause type 1 diabetes, without damaging the rest of the immune system. In addition to its potential in preventing type 1 diabetes, this type of diabetes vaccine could have other benefits. For example, they could be used in conjunction with other therapies to preserve remaining beta cell function in individuals recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It may also help with regeneration and replacement therapies, and be used to protect newly regenerated or transplanted insulin-producing beta cells in established type 1 diabetes

JDRFI Chief Scientific Officer said: “We believe vaccine research is one of the most promising approaches to prevent or halt the beta cell-specific autoimmunity in type 1 diabetes. And we are excited to be teaming up with Selecta to support the development of this next-generation of vaccine technology.”

The research collaboration agreement between JDRF and Selecta is part of JDRF's Industry Discovery and Development Partnership (IDDP) program. Through this, JDRF partners with pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies to prioritise and speed the discovery, development, and delivery of therapies and devices for type 1 diabetes.