Researchers from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research have helped find a genetic weakness for type 1 diabetes, paving the way for a drug that could boost insulin-making cells.
The WA researchers were part of a global consortium which identified an area of DNA linked to the autoimmune condition, type 1 diabetes that affects 130,000 Australians.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the pancreas not producing enough insulin because the necessary beta-cells have been destroyed by the body’s own immune system.
Professor Grant Morahan, co-ordinator of the Asia-Pacific arm of the worldwide study, says the finding is significant because it helps unravel how the condition develops.
“We have known for a long time that people’s genetic factors make them more or less at risk of developing type 1 diabetes,” Professor Morahan says.
“We have recently identified many of these genetic factors, however, the mechanisms by which these genes worked has been largely unknown.”
The study was led by Professor Flemming Pociot from Denmark and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. It pinpoints how a gene known as cathepsin H, or CTSH, contributes to diabetes.
Professor Morahan says that when looking at blood cells donated by 178 people with type 1 diabetes, his Perth research team found people made different levels of CTSH depending on which CTSH gene variant they had.
Their Danish colleagues then showed that higher levels of the gene protected the body’s antibody-producing beta-cells from dying when attacked by the immune system.
It meant people had better cell function and slower progression to type 1 diabetes.
Professor Morahan said proving this protective effect meant it was possible to develop a drug that could increase production of the gene in beta-cells, which could ward off type 1 diabetes.