Non-technical research summary
Autoimmune diseases will affect up to 5% of individuals during their lifetime and develop when the body’s own immune system attacks healthy tissues leading to their destruction. Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1D) is such an autoimmune disease in which, cells of the immune system, T cells, lead this attack, leading to the destruction of the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. These self-destructive T cells can be detected in the blood of T1D patients at diagnosis; however, we have recently uncovered the fact that many non-diabetic individuals also harbor dangerous T cells, with the potential for self-damage, yet there is no evidence of disease. A major question then is how are these cells held in check in individuals who do not develop autoimmune diseases? We believe that in most individuals these potentially harmful cells are policed by another population of T cells called regulatory T cells (Treg).
Our research focuses on studying Treg that prevent disease to gain a better understanding of how they function and determine whether a relative deficiency in either the number or function of these cells contributes to the development of autoimmune diseases such as T1D. To date our research suggests that individuals with T1D do have defects in the function of several key Treg types and we are currently investigating why this might be and devising strategies to improve the number and function of Tregs to correct this defect.
Implications of our research for human health and well-being.
In the field of diabetes, we believe that these studies will contribute towards the design of new treatments for preventing islet destruction in diabetes prone individuals or those undergoing islet transplantation and help us more accurately monitor the success of the new wave of diabetes prevention trials currently underway.
However, these studies also have a wider implication on our understanding of how the body controls cells of the immune system and prevents them from attacking tissues. A better understanding of how this process of immunological tolerance is maintained in health and can be promoted in disease could impact several other areas where strengthening immune tolerance is a key goal including; other autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease; patients undergoing organ transplantation as well as areas in which reducing immune regulation may be advantageous to health such as cases of chronic bacterial, viral or parasite infections or cancer.