Their finding could lead to new treatments that target this triggering process, potentially offering a way to cure or even prevent the condition.
Type 1 occurs when the body’s own immune system, which is meant to fight off diseases, attacks the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Previous research has found that T cells, part of the immune system, are behind the attack, but this is the first time researchers have identified the specific kind of T cell involved.
The London team, led by Professor Lucy Walker, studied T cells from people with and people without type 1. They found that samples from people with type 1 contained much higher levels of molecules associated with a kind of T cell known as a ‘follicular helper T cell’.
These cells have previously been implicated in other autoimmune conditions such as lupus, but this is the first time they have been identified as being behind the autoimmune attack in type 1.
“Knowing more about the type of T cell that causes type 1 is definitely good news for future treatments,” said Professor Walker. “It provides us with a new way of thinking about the cells that are causing the problem, and may allow us to develop different ways of interfering with them.”
While the discovery offers potential for research into a cure for type 1, it could also support research into preventing the condition, explained Professor Walker: “Measuring the level of this specific type of T cell in the blood could turn out to be a way of assessing someone’s risk of developing type 1 – this is an idea we’d like to explore in the future.”
The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.