Scientists have discovered how insulin producing cells that are typically destroyed in type 1 diabetes can change in order to survive an immune attack.
They hope that their work can lead to new treatment strategies for recovering these cells in people with type 1 diabetes as although they no longer fully function some cells survive for years after the onset of the disease.
The team of researchers at Yale University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard studied the changes in beta cells that occur during immune attack that may lead to their persistence in both mouse models of type 1 diabetes and in human cells in culture and identified a subpopulation of beta cells that resists immune attack.
‘During the development of diabetes, there are changes in beta cells so you end up with two populations of beta cells. One population is killed by the immune response. The other population seems to acquire features that render it less susceptible to killing,’ said senior author of the study immunobiology professor Kevan Herold.
He explained that this subpopulation survives by using a ‘duck and cover’ approach. The cells express molecules that inhibit the immune response. They also acquire stemness, or a stem cell like ability to revert to an earlier stage of development in which they can persist and proliferate despite immune attack.
The discovery will lead to further investigation of strategies that could benefit diabetic patients and in the future could lead to these cells being reactivated in people with type 1 diabetes.
‘The next question is, can we recover these cells so that there is insulin production in someone in type 1 diabetes,’ Herold explained.
The team of researchers now plan to test drugs to see if they can modify the beta cell subpopulation and turn it into insulin producing cells.
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