A new class of antigens that could possibly be contributing to the development of type 1 diabetes has been identified by scientists in the United States after a decade of research.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease wherein pancreatic cells that produce insulin are destroyed by immune cells. Without insulin, a life-threatening disease such as diabetes develops in the body.
A previous study found that the number of American kids with type 1 diabetes has significantly increased, and researchers currently don't know why this has happened. Incidentally, there is no existing cure for type 1 diabetes.
Thomas Delong, research assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said he and his colleagues have been studying T cells in type 1 diabetes.
T cells, which are part of the immune system, are tasked to kill foreign cells in the body to fight against diseases. Among people with type 1 diabetes, T cells are known to kill healthy beta cells, which release insulin, in the pancreas.
Delong and his colleagues wanted to know why T cells attack and kill beta cells. Their theory is that something might be happening within beta cells that trigger the attack.
For 10 years, Delong painstakingly stripped down the insulin-producing cells and tracked their reactions to T cells. He finally found an explanation.
"We found a new type of protein modification," said Delong to CBS4. The protein modification is a hybrid that consists of half-insulin and half-something else. This triggers the attack of T cells.
Because the new class of antigens were not there before, the immune system thinks the proteins are foreign and the T cells attack them. It seems pretty simple, but this could change a life person's forever.
Delong knows the effects of type 1 diabetes all too well as he has been diagnosed with the disease when he was 12. It prompted him to find answers for the condition.
"I became interested in studying and asking questions, 'Why does this happen to me? Why does my immune system turn against me?'" he said.
Delong's research is funded by the Pathway to Stop Diabetes program of the American Diabetes Association. Delong and his colleagues' next step is to find a way to stop the T cells from activating.
The team's study is featured in the journal Science.