News

Re-enacting the crime: funding boost for type 1 diabetes research

15 February 2017

Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham MP, Minister for Education and Training, and The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health and Minister for Sport, today awarded a team headed by St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research Associate Professor Stuart Mannering and his collaborator Professor Ed Stanley, from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), a $1.5million Innovation Award for research into type 1 diabetes.

The research is one of three bold and promising projects that will benefit from $4.5 million in funding from the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN). The T1DCRN is a clinical research program led by JDRF Australia and funded by a Special Research Initiative through the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Prof Stanley worked alongside fellow MCRI scientists Professor Andrew Elefanty and Dr Alisha Oshlack and Professor Fergus Cameron, and A/Prof Mannering’s team, which includes Dr Colleen Elso, Associate Professor Helen Thomas and Professor Tom Kay.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body’s immune cells mistakenly destroy the insulin-producing cells contained within the pancreas.

The grant awarded today is aimed at reconstructing the immune response that cause type 1 diabetes. This will allow the researchers to dissect exactly how the disease develops.

In 2015, a team led by A/Prof Mannering and Prof Kay pioneered techniques to isolate immune cells from the pancreas of organ donors who had suffered from type 1 diabetes. This important breakthrough allowed them, for the first time, to analyse immune cells from the ‘scene of the crime’.

The team is now taking on the challenge of re-enacting the crime – that is, recreating in the test-tube the killing of the insulin-producing cells so that the disease-causing response can be dissected. This long-term goal of the research is to develop a therapy that will prevent, or maybe even reverse, the disease.

To date, the group have been able to catch the ‘culprits’ – the immune cells – but they have not yet been able to interrogate the ‘victims’ – the insulin-producing cells. This is because it is not possible to store in the long-term the insulin-producing cells derived from an organ donor. And because the events are specific to each person, it is necessary to ‘match’ immune cells with insulin-producing cells from the same individual in order to properly reproduce disease conditions.

To solve this problem the team at SVI are joining forces with MCRI’s Professors Ed Stanley and Andrew Elefanty, who are world-renowned experts in the field of stem cells. Techniques developed by the MCRI group will allow the team to ‘grow’ insulin-producing cells from the stored blood of the original organ donor. These cells will be the ‘victims’ in the re-enactment, allowing the group to study the process of cell killing in type 1 diabetes in a powerful new way.

Ultimately this work will reveal, for the first time, how and why the immune system kills the insulin-producing cells in people who develop type 1 diabetes. This will allow scientists to develop ways to measure this ‘bad’ immune response in healthy people who may be developing type 1 diabetes.

By studying how the ‘crime’ unfolds, the scientists hope to be able to step in and stop it before it is too late.