Professor Claire Meek from the NIHR Leicester BRC is leading one of five global research projects receiving part of £1.5 million funding from JDRF, the world’s leading type 1 diabetes charity, and the Helmsley Charitable Trust to access a unique database which could help prevent type 1 diabetes.
Professor Meek is partnering with the Environmental Determinants of Islet Autoimmunity (ENDIA) Study.
Pioneering in its approach, this study monitors close relatives of people with type 1, beginning when they are still in the womb, to investigate the intricate relationship between environmental factors and an individual’s genes. The primary goal is to unravel the role these factors play in initiating and influencing the development of type 1 diabetes.
ENDIA has collected over 200,000 unique biological samples – such as blood, immune cells, breast milk, nasal swabs, stool, and urine samples – along with 16 million medical observations from 1,500 people with a parent or sibling diagnosed with type 1. ENDIA has been supported by JDRF and Helmsley since 2015, and through this partnership, a further £1.5 million is being invested to allow international researchers to collaborate with ENDIA. Professor Meek and the other select researchers will use ENDIA’s extensive resources to investigate new concepts about how type 1 develops.
The University of Leicester’s Professor Claire Meek, who is working within the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) and the Leicester Diabetes Centre (LDC), said: “I am delighted to be one of only five researchers across the world given exclusive access to ENDIA’s unique and unprecedented resources.
“I would like to thank JDRF and Helmsley for their longstanding commitment to unravelling the driving forces behind type 1 diabetes. I am honoured to contribute to the research by hunting for any pivotal biological changes that occur during pregnancy that may cause changes in the unborn child’s pancreas that could predict if they will develop type 1 diabetes.
“Along with the other four researchers receiving funding today, my project will bring us closer to being able to prevent type 1 diabetes.”
Dr Dorota Pawlak, Chief Scientific Officer at JDRF Australia, said: “ENDIA was the first study of its kind globally. The richness of the data and uniqueness of biological samples collected puts it at the forefront of research in type 1 diabetes prevention. This funding announcement will see ENDIA’s impact reach a new international level, by giving the best and brightest type 1 diabetes researchers around the globe access to ENDIA’s precious resources for innovative investigations seeking to uncover new findings.”
Professor Meek will hunt for new ways to identify how likely individuals are to develop type 1 by using advanced techniques to identify biological changes during pregnancy that may alter the unborn baby’s pancreas and immunity. By comparing children with different exposures during pregnancy, Professor Meek aims to discover biological markers in newborn babies that could predict type 1.
Being able to accurately predict who will develop type 1 will enable us to detect the onset of the condition earlier than ever before.
Rachel Connor, Director of Research Partnerships at JDRF UK, said: “JDRF is proud to have supported ENDIA from its inception and it is incredibly exciting to announce this first round of research projects to delve into its fantastic data.
“It is more exciting still that one of these five pioneering research projects is taking place here in the UK. Through innovative research projects like Professor Claire Meek’s, we hope to reach a point where we can stop type 1 diabetes in its tracks, so that people never experience the burden of managing type 1 diabetes with insulin and we can consign this condition to the history books.”
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system wrongly attacks the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone needed for breaking down glucose. This process happens gradually, with most of the 413,000 people in the UK population who live with type 1 diabetes – including 36,000 children – being diagnosed when around 80% of their insulin-producing beta cells have been destroyed. This is the point where people begin to display signs and symptoms of type 1, including extreme thirst and tiredness, excessive urination and unexplained weight loss. Left unchecked, these symptoms progress to a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be fatal in the short-term or lead to long-term diabetes complications.
Detecting type 1 earlier than we currently do will help prevent dangerous diagnoses in diabetic ketoacidosis and provide the opportunity for insulin-producing cells to be protected using immunotherapies. Projects like Professor Meek’s offer hope that one day, we will be able to act early enough in the disease progression to stop the immune attack altogether and prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes.
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