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

Displaying genetics


Researchers uncover a link between infection and type 1

JDRF-funded researchers at the University of Cambridge have found evidence of a link between viral infection and the development of type 1 diabetes.

They discovered that a genetic response normally associated with infection preceded the first indications of the condition in children.

 “We can now move our research forward to dissect out what effects such an anti-viral gene response has on the immune system to increase the risk of autoimmunity and type 1 diabetes in very young children,” commented Professor John Todd, Director of the JDRF/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, a co-director of the project.

He and JDRF postdoctoral fellow Dr Ricardo Ferreira, who led the research, believe their findings could lead to a way of identifying children at increased risk of type 1, even before they develop the immune system proteins, known as autoantibodies, that are currently the only immune system marker for the condition before symptoms arise.

Scientists have long known that there is a strong genetic element to being at increased risk of type 1. But not everyone with this increased inherited risk goes on to develop the condition.  Research suggests that environmental factors must be important but their identities largely remain elusive, with viral infections being the lead candidate. Last year, JDRF-funded research in Finland pointed to the coxsackie B virus as one potential environmental trigger.

The Cambridge research lends support to this idea. The genes identified are usually activated when the body produces a protein called type I interferon, which is emitted by cells when they encounter a virus.

Among children suspected to be at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes, these genes were most strongly activated, or ‘expressed’, in those who subsequently went on to produce autoantibodies to pancreatic cells, whereas children who did not develop this immune response during the study had lower levels of activation. 

In contrast, the genes were only weakly expressed in healthy participants and people who already had type 1 diabetes. This suggests that the response is limited to the period before the immune response is triggered, and could therefore lead to a way of identifying who is at greatest risk of developing the condition, allowing them to access treatment earlier than is currently possible.

Ferreira said: “We now have a handle on a potential biomarker that can be detected easily in a tiny blood sample that may indicate viral infections with predisposing effects in autoimmunity against the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.”

The researchers also found a link to respiratory infections, as children who had a recent respiratory condition were more likely to have the high level of gene activation.

However, because the illness data was self-reported by parents, there was no record of which infections these were, beyond being respiratory tract infections. The researchers now hope to carry out a study with additional infection data, potentially allowing them to track the effects of viruses on type 1. The JDRF-funded TEDDY study, which is recording the infections, allergies and diets experienced by young people at risk of developing the condition, is one source they hope to use.

Karen Addington, Chief Executive of JDRF, said: “The results of this study certainly appear worthy of being explored further.  Type 1 diabetes is a challenging and complex condition. But it will one day be cured. It's just a matter of time, money and excellent research such as this.”

The study, funded by JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charity, and the Wellcome Trust, was published today in the journal Diabetes.


Age of type 1 onset can predict risk in siblings

JDRF-funded researchers at the University of Bristol have found that a person’s age at the onset of their type 1 diabetes can indicate how likely it is that their siblings will also develop the condition.

This finding could make it easier to identify which people are at greater risk, and allow them to receive treatment earlier than is currently possible.

The research looked at 138 pairs of siblings registered in the Bart's-Oxford family study, which has been tracking young people with type 1, and their families, since 1985.

These pairs were chosen because, in each case, the sibling with type 1 had a specific genetic combination that is thought to be very important in determining genetic susceptibility to the condition.

It was found that for children who developed type 1 before the age of 10 years, 23% of their siblings also developed the condition before the age of 15. A further 29% developed autoimmunity towards insulin-producing cells, which is often seen as a precursor to type 1 diabetes.

In comparison, the figures were just 3% and 6%, respectively, for the siblings of those whose type 1 developed after their 10th birthday.

This suggests that there are extra factors – genetic or environmental – that may be influencing both siblings, prompting both an earlier onset and increased susceptibility.

Study researcher, Professor Polly Bingley, said the findings could be used to support future preventive treatments: ‘If you could identify people at risk at a younger age, then you could theoretically start primary prevention before they develop their antibodies.’

This would allow people to avoid any lasting effects that might occur if treatment is started later.

The team now hopes to investigate what causes this increased risk, with one candidate being epigenetic influences. These are changes to the way the body interprets its genes, caused by external factors.

‘Looking at epigenetics is becoming increasingly relevant and it’s something that we’d want to do,’ said Bingley.

The research was published in the journal Diabetes.


New type 1 diabetes genes unravelled

Researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have identified a new group of genetic differences that may increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

The team carried out the study by comparing samples from 10,000 people with type 1 diabetes with 17,000 people without type 1. The databases contained details of areas of the genome where there are differences in the DNA code of just one letter. These act as signposts for scientists, alerting them to regions of a gene associated with type 1 diabetes. 

Published online in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics, the research described three new places where the genes of people with type 1 were different. A particularly important variation is on the gene called LM07 that is associated with pancreas islet cells.

This latest discovery adds to the 50 genetic regions that have previously been linked to type 1 diabetes by researchers such as the JDRF-funded Professor John Todd at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Eleanor Kennedy said: “This research gives us a better understanding of the genetics of type 1 diabetes. Looking forward, it will be interesting to see what role these small genetic alterations play in the development of the condition.”


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