Type 1 Diabetes Investigators—Aided by JDRF Research Project—Are First to Identify “Killer” T Cells within Human Islets

A team of researchers recently became the first to catch “killer” cells at the scene of the crime—the pancreas—where they bring about the autoimmune attack that is a hallmark of type 1 diabetes (T1D). The researchers used human tissue samples from T1D organ donors obtained through nPOD, a JDRF collaborative research project.

Investigators at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology in San Diego, CA, used actual human pancreatic tissue from donors with T1D provided by the JDRF Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD). Their work proved that a specific type of T cell (a critical immune system component involved in the development of T1D) called a “CD8 T cell,” which is responsible for the attack on insulin-producing beta cells, can be found in the pancreas. The study, which appeared in the January 2, 2012 issue of The Journal of Experimental Medicine, examined pancreatic tissue from 45 organ donors who had T1D. The lead investigator, Matthias von Herrath, M.D., and his research team were able to detect evidence of the dangerous actions of the CD8 T cells in the pancreatic islets (which contain beta cells).

“This study demonstrates for the first time the presence of CD8 T cells, specific for beta cells, within human islets. While this has been a well-established fact in animal models of type 1 diabetes, the La Jolla investigators have now demonstrated it in human samples,” says Teodora P. Staeva, Ph.D., director of the immune therapies program at JDRF. “The presence of these CD8 T cells, which are capable of killing the insulin-producing beta cells, was shown in donors with recent-onset as well as long-standing T1D.” Dr. Staeva further explains: “Identifying the CD8 T cells that cause the beta-cell destruction can help to develop therapies that specifically target those cells and may thus offer safer interventions.” The research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, relied on nPOD, an innovative, JDRF-funded program based at the University of Florida, Gainesville, that provides donated organ tissue from people with T1D to scientists around the world. The nPOD program gives researchers a unique opportunity to literally see—and better understand—all phases of T1D and its impact on the pancreas and immune system.

“The power of nPOD is its ability to recover high-quality tissues from donors at all stages of T1D and make that available to researchers throughout the world,” says Dr. Staeva. “In addition, nPOD has spearheaded efforts on data sharing and scientific exchange that are setting new standards for the field.”

nPOD is a collaborative T1D research project that supports scientific investigators by providing, without cost, rare and difficult-to-obtain tissues. nPOD currently supports more than 70 T1D-related scientific studies at institutions around the world.

Learn more about nPOD at www.jdrfnPOD.org.