DRI Investigators Identify Cells Central to Self-Tolerance

DRI research team working on the self-tolerance study.

Miami, FL (August, 2005) — Dr. Alberto Pugliese, head of the Diabetes Research Institute’s immunogenetics program, and his team have reported the results of a new study, which could lead to a better understanding of the cause of type 1 diabetes and the prevention of its onset. The researchers identified a key group of cells that play a central role in educating the immune system to recognize certain molecules, like insulin, as “self.”

In type 1 diabetes, this education process, which occurs early in life within the thymus, goes awry, resulting in an attack on the insulin-producing islet cells. These new findings, which were recently published in The Journal of Immunology, build upon Dr. Pugliese’s previous discovery of the production of insulin in the thymus and its role in developing self-tolerance.

“It used to be thought that only the pancreas produced insulin, but in some of our earlier work we discovered that insulin is also produced in the thymus, an organ that dominates self-tolerance early in life,” said Dr. Pugliese. “Insulin production in the thymus is critical for the development of self-tolerance to insulin itself; the more insulin made in the thymus, the less likely it is that one may develop type 1 diabetes.”

This process is regulated by dendritic cells, which are the group of cells believed to help maintain self-tolerance and prevent autoimmunity. In the published study, the DRI researchers discovered that a subset of dendritic cells is capable of producing insulin in the thymus.

“We have discovered an unknown function of dendritic cells, the ability to produce self-molecules, in particular those that are otherwise produced only by specialized tissues in the body, such as insulin, which is typically only produced in the pancreas. These cells are not only at work in the thymus, but we’ve seen evidence that these insulin-producing dendritic cells circulate in the peripheral blood throughout the body.”

Armed with this information, the researchers are further studying dendritic cells for their potential to cure autoimmune diseases.

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