We talk to our supporters a lot about the research that’s happening around Australia, but it’s a fairly rare and special experience to actually venture behind the scenes and into the busy labs where the magic is happening. But that’s exactly what’s been going on across Australia during October and November, where JDRF staff in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide Brisbane and Canberra have accompanied groups of key supporters on exclusive lab tours at some of the nation’s top research facilities.
Not only did our staff, supporters and volunteers get to experience the clinical trials and laboratory work live in action, but they got to meet with some very talented researchers who are dedicated to delivering breakthroughs in type 1 diabetes (T1D) research. It was exciting to have JDRF Directors join us on some of the tours also.
What specific projects did each state’s group get to learn more about?
Our NSW group visited the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, where A/Prof Shane Grey wowed with his presentation on his teams’ investigation into removing or reducing the need for the lifelong immunosuppressive medications (which have significant side effects) usually needed to prevent newly transplanted insulin-producing cells from being attacked after an islet transplantation procedure. This research aims to remove a major barrier for the more widespread use of islet transplantation, which will be an important step on the path to a cure for people with T1D.
At the Translational Research Institute in Queensland, Dr Emma Hamilton-Williams leads the investigation of whether genes that increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes change the types of bacteria present in the intestines, changing the immune response which leads to the immune attack of beta cells. This research aims to provide a deeper understanding into what causes type 1 diabetes.
The group also met Dr Ahmed Medhi and Dr Jane Mullaney. Dr Medhi is using a computer program which aims to gather experimental data from ongoing trials that will compare genes in people with T1D to those without T1D. The computer program will also be able to predict which drugs might be used to target these genes to prevent T1D.
Dr Mullaney’s project is to determine if the gut bacteria composition is different in T1D patients and their families, and if the immune response to gut bacteria is altered compared with healthy people. This will shed further light onto the environmental determinants of T1D, and further our understanding of the interaction between diet, the gut environment, and immune responses.
JDRF Career Development Fellowship awardee, A/Prof Melinda Coughlan shared with the group at Baker IDI some insights on her investigation into how a particular part of the immune system, the complement system, contributes to the development of kidney damage in people with T1D. This project could potentially lead to new drug treatments that may prevent or reverse kidney damage.
We also met Prof Mark Cooper, who has been leading the Centre for Excellence for new targets and therapies in diabetic complications. This Centre is looking into how genes and cells behave and how high blood glucose levels cause damage, in order to prevent or slow progression of complications. This work will lead to a clinical trial to test a new medication to prevent progression of kidney disease.
The Telethon Kids Institute (TKI) hosted Perth’s lab tour, with the group getting to venture inside the Centre of Excellence to learn more about projects including the use of closed loop insulin therapy in children in a real life setting (led by Prof Tim Jones) and insight into blood glucose changes caused by food and exercise (led by A/Prof Davis). Both of these projects aim to reduce the burden of managing T1D in children and young people through new technologies or updated clinical guidelines.
Dr Megan Penno from Adelaide University’s Women and Children’s Hospital gave an update on the ENDIA (Environmental Determinant of Islet Autoimmunity) project and the impact of JDRF funding on the work ENDIA is doing. ENDIA is the largest study in the Southern Hemisphere of its type, investigating a number of environmental factors that may contribute to the development of islet autoimmunity and T1D in children.
Then, Royal Adelaide Hospital’s Prof Toby Coates and A/Prof Greenwood AM spoke about their research into artificial skin as a new method to improve the survival and function of transplanted insulin producing cells in people with type 1 diabetes. This artificial skin has been used to revolutionise the treatment of burns patients globally, and is now being trialled as a potential site to protect implanted islets from an immune attack.
A/Prof Charmaine Simeonovic and Prof Chris Parish were wonderful hosts at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, and clearly highlighted JDRF’s unique role in funding over $2 million of T1D research over the last decade in Canberra.
The research of the Simeonovic Group in Diabetes and Transplantation Immunology currently focuses on the immune processes behind beta cell destruction and rejection of foreign islets in transplantation and protecting beta cells from damage without strong immune suppressing medications. A/Prof Simeonovic and Prof Parish discovered that targeting or blocking a specific molecule in the body could protect beta cells and have set up a biotechnology company in order to trial this in humans.
While that wraps up the 2016 series of lab tours, we look forward to hosting another round next year. Supporters and JDRF staff alike came away full of excitement and hope for the amazing work that’s happening behind the scenes to make an impact for people living with T1D.