Major funding boost in the search for type 1 diabetes cure

Image - Major funding boost in the search for type 1 diabetes cure

Garvan Institute immunologist and UNSW Conjoint Professor Shane Grey and collaborators have been awarded $3.3 million to continue their innovative research into islet transplantation therapy as a cure for type I diabetes.

The grant, from the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN), will see researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research collaborate with teams from the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

The research aim is to improve islet transplantation therapy so that it becomes a clinically realistic and attractive therapeutic option for more individuals with type 1 diabetes, including children.

Islet transplantation therapy, in which insulin-producing structures (islets) derived from donor pancreas are transplanted into the recipient’s liver, can cure individuals of diabetes by restoring glucose-responsive insulin production.

However, recipients must take powerful immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives to avoid the introduced islets coming under attack from their own immune system.

The research approach focuses on calming the immune response of patients to islet transplantation, which may make it possible for treated individuals to live drug-free in the long term.

“Islet transplantation therapy has had a big impact on the lives of people with type 1 diabetes who also experience a dangerous condition called hypoglycemic unawareness,” Professor Grey said.

“The need to use immunosuppressive drugs stops us from being able to give this islet transplantation therapy to more people with type 1 diabetes, including children.”  

In type 1 diabetes, the body destroys the cells within the pancreas that produce insulin. Without insulin to mastermind the uptake of sugar from the blood, glucose levels can rapidly become damagingly high or plummet to life-threatening lows.

Professor Grey’s team has discovered that the transplanted islet cells provoke and encourage the immune attack that they are subjected to. Members of his research group, particularly UNSW PhD graduate Nathan Zammit, have pioneered research into how factors intrinsic to islets affect whether they transplant successfully.

This work led to the development of the idea of the ‘death-defying islet’, an islet for transplantation that could be protected from immune attack by modulating the molecular signals it emits.

In research funded by the grant, Professor Grey will determine whether engineering islets to produce more of the anti-inflammatory protein A20 can improve the function of islets after transplantation, decrease the need for immunosuppressive therapies and improve overall success rates.

Professor Grey is part of a large team headed by Professor Phil O’Connell from the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research. The team’s grant is one of five awarded on 9 September by T1DCRN, with a total value of $14 million.

T1DCRN is a clinical research program is led by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF Australia) and supported by the Australian Research Council.

Read the full Garvan Institute media release here

Date Published: 
Wednesday, 23 September 2015