Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge awards £5 million to leading researchers

By Editor
30th March 2023
Diabetes UK, Research Type 1 diabetes

The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge has announced funding of three major research projects, kicking off the race to a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Three leading UK researchers at the University of Dundee, the University of Exeter and Imperial College London have been awarded prestigious Fellowships totalling £5 million.

Made possible by the generous £50 million donation from the Steve Morgan Foundation, the three ambitious research projects could help unlock life-changing new treatments for type 1 diabetes, and will focus on two key research areas:

  • Developing treatments to replace or rescue insulin-producing beta cells
  • Understanding the root causes of type 1 diabetes and how to stop the immune attack.

Dr James Cantley, Reader in Systems Medicine at the University of Dundee aims to develop new treatments that will encourage beta cell growth in people with type 1 diabetes.

This could help people make their own insulin again without the body rejecting the beta cells which is a risk with transplanted ‘foreign’ beta cells.

Dr Cantley will explore promising drugs designed to reactivate the process by which beta cells form in the womb.

He will also explore potential ways to expand beta cells that have survived the immune attack in type 1 diabetes.

These new avenues could open the door for clinical trials into new treatments for people with type 1 diabetes.

Dr Cantley said: “Regenerating beta cells in the pancreas has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of type 1 diabetes, by replacing cells destroyed by the immune attack, and ultimately leading to stable blood sugar levels and a life free from insulin injections. However, there are many obstacles to developing successful therapeutic strategies.

“To overcome these, I have put together an ambitious, future-focused project and an outstanding international team of scientists which, with the support and funding from the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge, will enable us to focus on our mission of identifying new strategies to drive beta cell regeneration in the pancreas.”

He added: “We are on the cusp of a new era of type 1 diabetes treatment, and I can’t wait to see where this research takes us.”

Dr Victoria Salem, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London will develop a device that can be implanted into people with type 1 diabetes to deliver a new supply of beta cells.

Dr Salem will use innovative techniques to print a jelly-like protective barrier to shield new beta cells from the immune attack.

The protective barrier will be a sanctuary for the beta cells, allowing in vital nutrients that they need to survive.

The implant will first be tested in mice to build the evidence needed to take it into clinical trials.

Dr Salem said: “There are so many hurdles to creating a successful cell-transplant for people with type 1 diabetes.

“We can only crack this by working together – building fruitful collaborations across disciplines and the Grand Challenge is providing the boost we need to mobilise the best scientists towards this cause.”

She added: “I will lead a team of outstanding researchers, and international collaborators, to engineer improved beta cell replacement technologies.

“The dream for a cell-based cure for type 1 diabetes is now tantalisingly close – I’m so excited and honoured to be a part of this journey.”

Professor Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor in Cellular Biomedicine at the University of Exeter, will investigate how and why the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in type 1 diabetes, and how the process may differ between people with the condition.

Understanding the immune system’s different lines of attack will allow researchers to develop new, more targeted immunotherapy treatment options for people with type 1 diabetes.

Professor Richardson will also explore how beta cells sometimes resist the immune system attack and survive for years after diagnosis, identifying ways to arm lab-made beta cells, which could be transplanted into people with type 1, against attack.

She said: “As a scientist, one of the things that interests me about diabetes is the way it affects people in extremely different ways.

“My fellowship will explore how the early development of the pancreas may influence the form of type 1 diabetes a person develops.”

She added: “Ultimately, this will help us tailor existing and emerging therapies to the individual, maximising the benefits for people with type 1 diabetes.

“I also aim to develop a better understanding of how beta cells can protect themselves from the immune attack, which not only holds huge promise for improving beta cell replacement strategies but has the potential to bring us closer to a cure.”

Steve and Sally Morgan, Founders of the Steve Morgan Foundation, said: “We are proud of the Grand Challenge partnership with Diabetes UK and JDRF UK, which aims to accelerate the advancement towards a breakthrough for people living with type 1 diabetes.

“We are delighted with the appointment of these Fellowships and look forward with anticipation to their discoveries and progress.”

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “We are thrilled to introduce the first scientists who will be spearheading the Grand Challenge’s mission to deliver transformational new treatments and bring fresh hope of a cure for everyone living with type 1 diabetes.

“The exceptional new Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Senior Research Fellows are all tackling this challenge in inventive and collaborative ways, at the forefront of cutting-edge science.”

She added: “We can’t wait to watch them develop into global research leaders of the future and see how their discoveries will drive radical change for people with type 1 diabetes.”

Rachel Connor, Director of Research Partnerships at JDRF, said: “We are delighted that the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge is getting off to such strong start, providing three Senior Research Fellowships.

“The ambitious research projects will accelerate us towards much needed cures for type 1 diabetes, driving change for people who live with type 1 diabetes.”

She added: “Each Senior Research Fellow is taking a different approach, bringing their skills and creativity to specific challenges in tackling type 1 diabetes, from the destructive dance of the immune system and beta cells that drives type 1 diabetes, to the challenges of regrowing beta cells in the body, or developing new ways to help transplanted cells survive in the body.

“We’re excited to see how these emerging leaders will drive progress as part of the worldwide community of scientists dedicated to curing type 1 diabetes.”

The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge was established following the Steve Morgan Foundation’s generous £50 million donation into type 1 diabetes research.

Over five years the Grand Challenge is funding research with the greatest potential to lead to life-changing new treatments and ultimately a cure for type 1 diabetes.

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