Tracking the perpetrators

Type 1 diabetes, is a serious and challenging disease which affects millions of people worldwide. It requires constant and careful management of blood sugar levels and multiple insulin injections each day to simply stay alive. Yet, despite significant progress in available treatment options, keeping the disease under control is difficult to achieve. As a result, patients face a number of serious disease complications including greater risk of having a heart attack, stroke or kidney disease. Therefore, to find new life-changing treatments and cures we need to better understand this complex disease.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, which develops when immune cells mistakenly attack and destroy the body’s own insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Insulin is an essential hormone, and it maintains optimal blood sugar levels by moving sugar out of the blood and into cells to be used for energy. As a person’s ability to produce insulin declines, blood sugar levels rise and with it the dependency on external insulin.

The autoimmune attack is driven by T cells, which play an important role in orchestrating the functions of the immune system. The prime candidates for wreaking havoc in the pancreas are so-called CD8 T cells. In type 1 diabetes, T cells react to particular molecules in the pancreas that they would normally ignore. The aim of this project is to study this subset, known as antigen-specific CD8 T cells, in pancreas from donors with type 1 diabetes and healthy donors.

So far, only limited data is available on the number and characteristics of antigen-specific CD8 T cells implicated in the destruction process over the course of type 1 diabetes. Therefore, I will stain human tissue sections with fluorescent labels to detect the total number of these cells, their location in the pancreas and their exact characteristics. The overall goal is to improve our understanding of the role of these infiltrating CD8 T cells in the disease before and after diagnosis. And finally, to provide an opportunity to intervene and stop this immune response from happening and prevent type 1 diabetes.