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Immune cells may play important role in progression of type 1 diabetes, Joslin researchers find

(Boston - May, 2004) - A study reported in the May issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that cells of the body's immune system called natural killer (or NK) cells, whose role in diabetes had been underappreciated and little studied, may actually play an important role in moving the type 1 diabetes disease process forward.

Scientists have long known that type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system mistakenly launches an attack on the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. At an early stage in this process, white blood cells called T-cells invade the islets of Langerhans of the pancreas, where the beta cells reside (a condition known as "insulitis"). Yet, in both mice and humans, insulitis does not always progress to full-blown type 1 diabetes. For years, scientists have been trying to determine why insulitis sometimes leads to diabetes (so-called "destructive" insulitis) and sometimes does not ("innocuous" insulitis).

To study this question, Laurent Poirot, Ph.D., Christophe Benoist, M.D., Ph.D., and Diane Mathis, Ph.D., of the Section on Immunology and Immunogenetics at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston looked at two related strains of genetically engineered mice -- one whose insulitis is known to be destructive and the other whose insulitis is innocuous. Using powerful genetic tools known as microarrays, which allow the researchers to test for thousands of genes at once, they looked for differences in gene expression between the cells causing innocuous insulitis and those causing destructive insulitis.

The researchers discovered that there was a greater expression of genes characteristic of natural killer cells, and more of these cells, in the destructive insulitis lesions compared with innocuous lesions. "That was a surprise because NK cells had previously not been thought to promote diabetes," explained Mathis. "In fact, if anything, they were thought to pro
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Contact: Marge Dwyer
Marjorie.dwyer@joslin.harvard.edu
617-732-2415
Joslin Diabetes Center
24-May-2004


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