Investigating the role of individual immune systems in type 1 diabetes

Investigating the role of individual immune systems in type 1 diabetes

Researchers around the world have been investigating the autoimmune response which causes type 1 diabetes with the aim of influencing that response and so ultimately preventing, or curing, the disease.
Beta cell immunology

Beta cell immunology

This is very high on the agenda of medical researchers as diabetes is a growing problem around the world, doubling in childhood over the last 10 years. 

Type 1 diabetes differs from its close cousin, type 2: it is more prevalent in children and type 1 is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's immune system turns against itself, attacking and destroying the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin, so the patient must take insulin daily to survive.

To date, no one exactly knows what causes the body's immune system to attack the beta cells, but it has become clear that this process differs between individuals and is under genetic control. This ongoing mystery encouraged Dr Emile Hendriks, Clinical Lecturer and researcher at the University of Cambridge, to propose research into the differences in individual immune responses and how those affect the onset and progression of the disease. The Evelyn Trust has funded Dr Hendriks and his team to run a three-year research project focussing on the immune systems of children with type 1. Dr Hendriks explains his approach,

“We are working with children as we needed patients in the early stages of type 1 diabetes who had been recently diagnosed. At diagnosis some beta cell function usually remains, but the immune response continues to destroy these beta cells typically over the first year or so. We wanted to monitor and investigate this period to find out why some children progress very quickly to almost no beta cell function whereas others retain this capacity for much longer. If we can unscramble the reasons for the different ‘tempos’ of the disease, there’s more chance of personalised immunotherapies in the future that will really work. Recent clinical trials have shown that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to immunotherapy just isn’t effective.

“We now have 32 patients in our project and we developed a straightforward ‘dried blood spot’ test to measure how much insulin production remains. This means children and parents can test their blood at home weekly, send us the results and we will have mountains of data to work with. Next we will study their immune response at the single cell level to evaluate whether these vary between individuals with different tempos of beta cell decline.”

The project started late in 2017. Towards the end of this year the first results will become available, with the final report due in 2020.

“Type 1 diabetes is a serious burden to individuals, families and health economies around the world. It’s very exciting to be leading one piece of the research jigsaw which - in the long term - could lead to the prevention or cure of this disease,” adds Emile.

To find out more about the research ongoing in the University’s Department of Paediatrics, visit

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