Last week, JDRF-funded researchers from the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego, California announced that they had created the first 3-dimensional movies depicting the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells – the process that ultimately leads to type 1 diabetes (T1D) – in real-time mouse models. Their research was published in this month’s Journal of Clinical Investigation.
So much of T1D goes unseen by patient and physician alike. A patient often is not even diagnosed until the disease progression has reached a point that can be potentially dangerous. Even the researchers tasked with studying the disease and its cause(s) have done so largely by observing the effects of the disease – the symptoms from the overall reduction in the beta cell population – instead of being able to actually see the beta cells as they are destroyed.
The basis for the new imaging is a two-photon microscope and a new technique developed by JDRF Scholar, Dr. Matthias von Herrath to access the pancreas. The JDRF Scholar program was initiated in 2006 to support pioneering, potentially breakthrough research. Using intense light pulses, the microscope is able to visualize the cells of the pancreas as well as the blood vessels being used by immune T cells to access the pancreas. These blood vessels are important as they are allowing the immune T cells to enter the pancreas where they would not normally exist.
Researchers are already benefiting from these movies, gaining a better understanding of the process and speed with which the beta cells are destroyed by the immune cells. By watching in real time, the researchers observed that the process of beta cell death happened much slower than previously believed, requiring tens of millions of T cells to destroy a significant number of beta cells. This finding provides a potential explanation for the relatively long preclinical stage of the disease.
This breakthrough at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology gives T1D researchers an important tool for studying the disease in its earliest stages in hopes of better understanding how the disease unfolds. Thanks to the high level of detail provided by the videos, researchers have noted specific cellular interactions and behaviors from which they hope to develop a way to halt or prevent the disease process.