Deleting a gene prevents Type 1 diabetes in mice by disguising insulin-producing cells

MADISON, Wis. — Removing a gene from the cells that produce insulin prevents mice from developing Type 1 diabetes by sparing the cells an attack from their own immune system, a new UW-Madison study shows.

The cellular sleight-of-hand may suggest ways to prevent Type 1 diabetes in high-risk individuals, as well as other diseases in which the immune system targets the body’s own cells.

People with Type 1 diabetes — once called juvenile diabetes — make little or no insulin, a hormone necessary to make energy from the sugar in their blood. At an early stage in the disease, their immune system’s frontline soldiers, called T cells, incorrectly identify insulin-producing beta cells as a threat and kill them, leading to complete insulin deficiency.

The resulting chaos must be managed for the rest of a patient’s life with diet, blood sugar measurement and insulin shots. Type 1 diabetes afflicts as many as 20 million people around the world, contributing to glaucoma, nerve damage, high blood pressure and stroke. In the U.S., it shortens life expectancy by more than a decade.

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