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12 November 2021

100 years of insulin: How immunotherapy could be the future of diabetes treatment

This year is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin.


This year is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Before this discovery, diabetes was a fatal condition with a short lifespan for those with the condition. But in 1921, three scientists from the University of Toronto, Sir Frederick G Banting, Charles H Best and JJR Macleod, discovered how to extract insulin and show that it can reduce blood sugar levels. In January 1922, the first person with type 1 diabetes was treated.

In the past 100 years, the discovery of insulin has saved countless lives and made diabetes a condition which people can live and thrive with. However, there are still few alternative treatments for the condition.

Professor Timothy Tree, from the School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences, is working on pioneering breakthroughs that has the potential to prevent and even cure the condition.

Someone develops type 1 diabetes because their body’s immune system becomes imbalanced and attacks the cells in the body that make insulin. Treating type 1 diabetes with insulin allows individuals to check their blood sugar levels and adjust their dose of insulin accordingly. However, this treatment does not address the root cause of the condition.

Professor Tree is working with immunotherapies, which try to re-balance the body’s immune system so that it stops it from destroying the insulin making cells. His lab, based in Guy’s Hospital, is studying blood samples from people taking part in immunotherapy trials in the UK and Europe. Previous trials have shown the benefits of these drugs in some people but not others, and so researchers are seeking to understand why that is.

I’m most excited about teplizumab. Recent trials have shown this treatment isn’t just able to stop the destruction of insulin making cells when someone has developed the condition but actually we give it to people before they develop clinical type one diabetes. It can delay the disease by between two and three years. When we can delay it by 2-3 years then the next round of immunotherapies may be able to delay the disease further and further and further until we can completely prevent individuals from developing this condition.

Professor Timothy Tree, from the School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences

He added: “I feel hopeful because I’ve lived with type one diabetes for over 30 years and I’ve seen that research works. When we invest time and effort there’s great patient benefit. I’m really hopeful that in the next ten years, the first immunotherapies will become commonly available for people developing, or at risk of developing type one diabetes.”

To discover more about Dr Tree’s work visit:

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Timothy Tree 1

Professor of Immune Regulation and Immunotherapy