The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge returns to DUKPC

May 7, 2024
A packed auditorium at DUKPC 2024

The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge was the topic on everyone’s lips at this year’s Diabetes UK Professional Conference. Many of the large and growing community of Grand Challenge researchers were in attendance to celebrate their awards and update delegates on their research plans and progress.

The drive behind the Grand Challenge 

The Grand Challenge session at this year’s DUKPC was chaired by Sally Morgan, a Trustee of the Steve Morgan Foundation, who opened with an emotive speech about her family’s journey with type 1 diabetes and their hope for a cure, and Professor Simon Heller, Chair of our Scientific Advisory Panels, who introduced the speakers, our three Senior Research Fellows. 

Regrowing new beta cells 

First up was Dr James Cantley, who began by explaining his ambitious drug discovery work to find a drug to regenerate the beta cells that have been destroyed by the immune attack. Sometimes the process of making new beta cells (neogenesis) is restored in adults, as a result of stress or injury. Dr Cantley and his team at the University of Dundee are modelling this process in the lab, and testing the effect different drugs have on it. Their aim is to find a drug that can support beta cell regrowth and be tested in clinical trials of people with type 1 diabetes. 

Dr Cantley is also exploring how to encourage existing beta cells to reproduce. The immune attack on beta cells is gradual, meaning people with type 1 diabetes can still have surviving beta cells for some time after diagnosis. Dr Cantley hopes to find a way to make these remaining beta cells rapidly reproduce, a process called proliferation. Dr Cantley explained that a molecule called DYRK1A can trigger this process in the lab, and he plans to test this in mice with diabetes next. Dr Cantley said that to measure how well the treatment works, he’s building a huge microscope to view the whole mouse pancreas in high quality.

Dr Cantley said:

“This funding is a game-changer for innovative exploratory early research projects.”

Learn more about Dr Cantley’s Grand Challenge funded research. 

Developing a protective coating for beta cells

Dr Vicky Salem was next to guide us through her vision for using biomaterials to keep beta cells safe from the immune attack in type 1 diabetes. Her team is developing a water-based jelly coating, known as a hydrogel, to protect lab-grown beta cells from the immune system once they’ve been transplanted into people with type 1. As well as acting as a protective shield, the aim is for the hydrogel to help connect beta cells to a blood supply so they can thrive after transplantation. 

Dr Salem was joined by research team member PhD student Rea Tresa, who explained the sophisticated approach to encapsulating (coating) beta cells in the hydrogel, which involves 3D bioprinting. Oil and water are squirted together to form coatings around clusters of beta cells called islets, which then flow through a complex structure of cells and hydrogels which supports a blood supply but does not give access to the immune system. 

Dr Salem said:

“Fellowships like this one support clinicians to engage with science for the benefit of patients.”

Learn more about Dr Salem’s Grand Challenge funded research. 

Are islets surrendering or fighting back?

Professor Sarah Richardson was the last to share her research updates. Her project has three goals: to better understand how islets are attacked; to enhance islets’ defences; and to help other research groups to bridge the gap between the lab and the clinic, by validating their findings in human pancreases.  

By examining rare human pancreas samples in incredible detail, Professor Richardson and her team are currently investigating the role of the protective barrier that forms around islets when the pancreas is developing in early life. And how easily the immune system is able to break it down, depending on the age a person develops type 1 diabetes. The aim is to understand why type 1 diabetes tends to be more aggressive in people diagnosed before the age of 12 years.  

Telling us more about islets’ defence mechanisms, Prof Richardson also explained that there’s a protein on the surface of islets called HLA1 which makes them visible to the immune system. Another type of HLA1 helps to protect the islets. Prof Richardson’s team has found how islets release this protective HLA1 protein and is working on how to harness this process to protect islets in people with type 1. 

Prof Richardson said:

“We have examined more pancreas samples from people with type 1 diabetes than anywhere else in the world.”

Learn more about Professor Richardson’s Grand Challenge funded research. 

Welcoming new faces

Collaboration and community are at the heart of the Grand Challenge, so we celebrated the latest researchers to join the team. We now support over 100 researchers and collaborators working across at least 30 institutions in the UK and further afield. And even more will be joining the race to find new treatments and a cure for type 1 later this year when we announce the outcomes of our latest funding calls.

The latest batch of Grand Challenge-funded researchers, receiving awards at DUKPC 2024

Amplifying voices

Diabetes UK’s Patient and Public Involvement Lead and JDRF UK’s Director of Research Partnerships spoke at the conference about how the Grand Challenge is taking a pioneering approach to involvement. From its outset, the Grand Challenge has been committed to involving people with lived experience of type 1 diabetes in all stages of the research life cycle. This means we can be confident that the research we fund is important, meaningful, and has the biggest potential to transform the lives of people with type 1 diabetes. 

We’re grateful to our Type 1 Diabetes Research Panel members, who generously give their time to help researchers better understand the reality of living with type 1, to optimise the design, delivery, and dissemination of their research.  

Liz Eves and Rachel Connor discussing the importance of involving people with type 1 diabetes in research

Empowering tomorrow’s leaders

We were delighted to be joined by a handful of Young Leaders from Diabetes UK’s Together Type 1 programme, also funded by the Steve Morgan Foundation. Together Type 1 is a community for children and young people aged 11-25 living with type 1 diabetes, enabling them to make new friends, learn new skills, and build confidence. 

We brought Grand Challenge researchers and Young Leaders together in conversation, and discussed everything from career advice to diabetes research that holds the most promise to improve lives. We’ll be hearing directly from the Young Leaders about their time at DUKPC in the coming weeks. 

Accelerating faster

Excitement is building around the Grand Challenge as the pace picks up and more researchers join the race towards a cure for type 1 diabetes. After three packed days hearing the latest research updates, celebrating a growing scientific community, and empowering more people with type 1 to get involved, it’s clear the Grand Challenge is building momentum to move us closer towards a future where the relentless burden of type 1 diabetes is a thing of the past. 

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