Innovative regenerative medicine approach could yield new treatments for type 1 diabetes

Researchers from Garvan and the Victor Chang Institute are set to explore a startling new approach to the treatment of Type 1 diabetes, following the announcement today of substantial funding from the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN).
Media Release: 15 February 2017

A collaborative research team from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and the University of Adelaide have today been awarded a $1.5 million T1DCRN Innovative Grant. The grant will kickstart an investigation into whether humans can regenerate their pancreatic beta cells, which keep our blood sugar levels steady by producing insulin.

The new research program will focus on the key event in the development of type 1 diabetes – the catastrophic loss of insulin-producing beta cells from the pancreas (often in childhood). Without a critical mass of these cells, the body has insufficient insulin to control the uptake of sugar from the blood, so glucose levels can rapidly become damagingly high or plummet to life-threatening lows. 

Associate Professor Shane Grey, of Garvan’s Immunology Division, is leading the research.

A/Prof Grey says, “Right now, there’s no way to replace the insulin-producing beta cells that are lost when type 1 diabetes kicks in. We want to change that, so we’re following up some very exciting discoveries in zebrafish, which highlight the possible regeneration of beta cells by immune cells. We are seeing some hints that a similar process could occur in people.”

The seed of the innovative idea was sown when co-investigator Dr Kazu Kikuchi from the Victor Chang Institute, who uncovered a surprising link between the immune system and heart and nerve regeneration in zebrafish. Dr Kikuchi studies zebrafish because, unlike people, their heart and other tissues can regenerate fully after damage.

Dr Kikuchi says, “I was amazed to see that in zebrafish, immune cells were flooding into the damaged heart – and I knew that I had to get to the bottom of what they were doing.”

Through further experiments, Dr Kikuchi found that these immune cells (called T cells) were needed for the zebrafish hearts to heal – and that they were bringing crucial ‘regeneration factors’ to help the heart rebuild. He also uncovered tantalising preliminary results that hinted that T cells could kickstart regeneration in other tissues.

A/Prof Grey says, “Dr Kikuchi’s work opens the door to a new possibility that we can train the body to heal itself. For patients with type 1 diabetes, this could make it possible to rebuild a supply of insulin-producing cells – effectively curing the disease.

“We looked closer and saw that in zebrafish, these tissue-repairing T cells rush to damaged islets, the areas of the pancreas where the insulin-producing cells are located. Our next step is to see whether these same T cells can repair the damaged islet cells.  We will then explore whether we can harness this remarkable feature of the immune system to restore insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes.”

The funding was announced today at Parliament House in Canberra. The project was made possible through the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN), a collaborative initiative led by JDRF Australia and funded through a Special Research Initiative of the Australian Research Council.