Type I diabetes results from a deficiency of the hormone insulin and leads to abnormally high blood glucose levels. If untreated, it can lead to potentially life-threatening complications including heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and blindness. Treatment with insulin is the most established standard therapy for type I diabetes, but complications can occur despite good treatment with insulin.

Transplantation of the whole pancreas gland, or only the insulin-producing islet cells, can potentially ‘cure’ diabetes. These treatments, however, are limited by the availability of suitable organs or islets, complications of pancreas transplantation and the need for life-long immunosuppression to prevent rejection.

Three promising new potential therapies for type I diabetes are insulin-producing ‘beta’ cells that have been derived from stem cells or by conversion of two different cells in the adult pancreas into a potentially unlimited supply of insulin-producing cells.

Understanding how the immune system recognises these insulin-producing cells is essential for their clinical use. We hope to prove that insulin producing cells generated from a person’s own stem cells are not rejected by the immune system and can therefore be used without the need for immunosuppression.

Because treating a patient with his or her own stem cells represents a very significant logistic and economic challenge, by better understanding the immune response we also hope to determine how best to ‘match’ diabetic patients with insulin-producing cells that have been generated using tissue from other humans.

A final aim of the collaboration is to optimise and refine two therapies that will selectively suppress the immune response to these insulin-producing cells and allow their clinical use without the need for more harmful immunosuppressant drugs

We anticipate that the findings of this study will make a significant positive impact on the future treatment of diabetes and on therapies derived from stem cells in general.