Media Release | Oct. 5, 2010

T cell discovery shows promise for Type 1 diabetes treatment: UBC-CFRI study

A research team from the University of British Columbia and the Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI) at BC Children’s Hospital has identified the role of a type of T cell in type 1 diabetes that may lead to new treatment options for young patients.

Also known as juvenile diabetes, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease primarily affecting children and young adults. In patients with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks itself by destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that regulate glucose, or blood sugar.

Led by Rusung Tan, a Pathology professor in the UBC Faculty of Medicine and co-head of the Immunity in Health and Disease research cluster at CFRI, the research team has identified the increased presence of Th17 cells, a type of T cell discovered in 2005, in children newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“T cells are white blood cells and key members of the immune system that control infections,” says Tan, who is also a member of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at BC Children’s Hospital and a senior scholar of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. “In healthy individuals, Th17 cells provide a strong defence against bacteria and viruses by guiding the immune system to strongly attack infected targets within our bodies.”

However, Th17 has been associated with other autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, which suggests they can play a harmful role. Treatments designed to block Th17 cells are in clinical trials for these diseases.

“The elevated levels of Th17 cells in type 1 diabetes patients suggest that these cells may also play a key role in the early development of this disease in young patients,” says Tan. “This discovery opens the door to new treatments for childhood diabetes that target Th17 cells.”

The findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of Immunology. The team consists of researchers from UBC, CFRI and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. At the time of the study, lead author Dr. Ashish Marwaha was a master’s student at UBC and CFRI. The study was supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The UBC Faculty of Medicine provides innovative education programs in health and life sciences, teaching over 3,000 students at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels. In addition, over 700 researchers/faculty members representing all of the Faculty’s 19 departments, two schools and 15 research centres and institutes received research grants. In 2008/09 the Faculty generated more than one-half of the total research funding of the university ($475.3M). For more information visit www.med.ubc.ca.

The Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI) works in close partnership with the University of British Columbia and the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics; BC Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children, BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre and BC Mental Health & Addiction Services, agencies of the Provincial Health Services Authority; and BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. CFRI has additional important relationships with British Columbia’s five regional health authorities and with B.C. academic institutions Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of Northern British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. For more information, visit www.cfri.ca.

BC Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children is British Columbia’s only pediatric hospital and home to many specialized pediatric services available nowhere else in the province, including B.C.’s trauma centre for children, pediatric intensive care, kidney and bone marrow transplants, open heart surgery, neurosurgery and cancer treatment. Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children is the provincial facility that offers specialized child development and rehabilitation services to children and youth. BC Children’s and Sunny Hill is an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which includes B.C.’s largest academic and teaching health sciences centres: Vancouver General Hospital, UBC Hospital, and GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. The institute, academically affiliated with UBC Faculty of Medicine, is one of Canada’s top funded research centres, with $102 million in total research funding for 2008/2009. VCH Research Institute brings innovation and discovery to patient care, advancing healthier lives in healthy communities across British Columbia, Canada, and beyond. www.vchri.ca.

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Brian Lin
UBC Public Affairs
Tel: 604.822.2234
Cell: 604.818.5685
E-mail: brian.lin@ubc.ca

Jennifer Kohm
Child & Family Research Institute
Tel: 604.875.2401
E-mail: jkohm@cw.bc.ca

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Microscopic image of a pancreatic islet, where insulin-producing cells live. Figure 1 (above) shows the beginning of an infiltration by white blood cells, many of which may be Th17. Figure 2 (below) shows a later stage of the infiltration in which most of the insulin-producing cells have been destroyed.

Figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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