Our type 1 diabetes research

Our type 1 diabetes research


Left to right: Nathan Zammit, Nazanin Beyzaie, A/Prof Shane Grey, Stacey Walters, Daniele Cultrone and Suzanna Pilgrim

A cure for type 1 diabetes (T1D) seems not only possible, but probable.

Our team is probing the molecular causes of this disease in the hope of creating new therapies.

We’re using state of the art gene analysis technologies, molecular biology techniques as well as experimental models of diabetes to help search for a cure. We have discovered novel genes that control how insulin-producing cells die when attacked by the immune system.

Immunogenomics

Using whole-genome sequencing to examine DNA has led to the discovery that most disease is linked to genetic mutations. Instead of trying to treat the symptoms of the disease, we can now aim to treat the mutations causing them.

Whole-genome sequencing gives our immunogenomics team the unparalleled ability to test families with a genetic risk for T1D, and diabetic complications like renal failure and hypoglycaemic unawareness. This leads to better prevention and more effective personalised medicine. 

Read more about our functional genomics approach to type 1 diabetes.

Key areas of investigation

The role of genes

There is strong evidence that T1D arises when a certain combination of genes come into contact with a particular environmental influence. Past research has identified some good candidate genes, and raised suspicion on others. We know less about the particular changes in the genes, and how as a result, their function differ.

Our research uses new genome technologies to track and record gene changes in T1D. We’ve begun by sequencing the genomes of 50 individuals with T1D.

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Red islet cells and green immune cells.
Red islet cells and green immune cells.

Preventing immune attack

In T1D, the immune system is unable to tell the difference between harmful invaders and the body’s own cells. One way to cure diabetes would be to persuade the immune system to accept pancreatic beta cells as part of the body.

Some of the immune system culprits are T cells. T cells develop in the thymus gland and are ‘educated’ to become helpers, warriors, or regulators. In T1D, the helper and warrior T cells work together to kill beta cells, while the regulators appear unable to stop this.

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Islet transplantation surgery.
Islet transplantation surgery.

Islet transplantation surgery

One solution would be to replace the destroyed pancreatic beta cells with new ones. Isolated islets from a donor pancreas can be transplanted into another person, where they begin to produce insulin again.

These studies reveal an important new paradigm in transplantation

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T cells to the rescue

The Garvan Institute is embarking on a joint program with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and the University of Adelaide to investigate if we can train the body to heal itself from T1D. The program stems from the discovery that zebrafish can use their immune systems to repair and regenerate damaged organs and tissues, including the pancreatic beta cells destroyed in T1D.

Dr Kikuchi’s discovery opens the door to a new possibility that we can train the body to heal itself.

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National and international collaborations

  • Australian Islet Transplant Consortium including Westmead
  • Hospital, Sydney; St Vincent’s Institute, Melbourne and Royal
  • Adelaide Hospital, Adelaide, Australia
  • Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
  • Childrens Hospital, Westmead, Sydney, Australia
  • Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, Australia
  • Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, UK
  • John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU, Canberra, Australia
  • Kinghorn Centre for Clinical Genomics, Sydney, Australia
  • National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), ANU, Canberra, Australia
  • Scottish National Islet Transplant Programme, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Translational Genomics Transplant Laboratory, University of Virginia, Virginia, USA
  • University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
  • Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Sydney, Australia
  • Wellcome Trust/MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge, UK.