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Stressed out beta cells

05 April 2012

The JDRF-funded research team at the University of Indiana, led by Dr Sarah Tersey, found that beta cells can become 'stressed' and die even before the immune system begins its attack. The study was published in the journal Diabetes last week.

Not much is known about what happens in the build-up to the immune attack that targets beta cells and causes type 1: this study has given us some important new clues. By studying the development of type 1 diabetes in mice, the research team were able to observe that a part of the beta cell called the ‘endoplasmic reticulum’ can get very stressed in the early development of type 1 and trigger a process called 'apoptosis' that kills the beta cell. This can happen before the immune system begins its attack – it is possible that this stress response may even contribute to activating the process of autoimmune destruction.

The endoplasmic reticulum plays an important part in producing insulin, so it is a particularly sensitive part of the beta cell. Dr Tersey and her team found that stress on the endoplasmic reticulum affects the way insulin is produced – causing a chain of events that can eventually kill the cell. This is the first study to show that defects in insulin production can happen before the immune system begins to attack beta cells.

Rachel Connor, Head of Research Communication at JDRF said ‘A better understanding of the events that lead up to type 1 may help to advance strategies to delay or prevent the development of the condition. Dr Tersey’s study gives us new insight in to the very earliest stages of type 1 and opens new avenues of investigation that could lead us to an explanation of exactly what triggers the autoimmune attack in the first place’.

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