A new blood test being developed by researchers at BC Children’s Hospital and the University of British Columbia may help doctors monitor patients with type 1 diabetes (T1D) potentially leading to improved predictions about disease progression and more effective, personalized treatments. The University of British Columbia has filed a provisional patent in the United States for the test panel, which measures regulatory T cells, a type of immune cell that doesn’t work properly in people with T1D.

“This discovery has the potential both to help scientists study T1D and improve clinical care of the condition,” says Dr. Megan Levings, an investigator at the Child & Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital, a Professor in the University of British Columbia Department of Surgery, and lead of the study, which is published today in Diabetes. “A new way to monitor the progression of diabetes in patients will help us understand the disease and evaluate the efficacy of treatments, including new, experimental therapies.”

T1D occurs when the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leaving patients dependant on insulin injections for life. The body has checks and balances in place that should prevent the immune system from attacking healthy tissue, but in people with T1D these processes fail.

Specialized white blood cells called regulatory T-cells (Tregs) play a key role in preventing harmful immune responses and there is significant evidence that Treg malfunctions lead to the development of type 1 diabetes. “New therapies for T1D that work by boosting Treg function are already in clinical trials, but we don’t fully understand how Tregs work and why they sometimes fail,” says Dr. Levings. “Also, until now, there was no easy way to track changes in Tregs inside our bodies.”

In this research, Dr. Levings and her colleagues identified a genetic signature that allows them to distinguish Tregs from the many other types of cells present in blood. This gene pattern can be used to measure changes in Tregs using just a small sample of a patient’s blood.

“This test may enable us to provide more personalized treatment options by allowing us to determine which patients are most likely benefit from Treg-directed therapies,” says Dr. Levings.

T1D is usually diagnosed during childhood, meaning patients must live with the condition for their entire lives. Although regular insulin injections allow most people to manage T1D, the condition can still lead to life-threatening complications. Research has shown T1D typically reduces a person’s lifespan by more than ten years.[i]

“In the last century, we’ve made huge strides in treating diabetes, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Dr. Levings. “This test brings us one step closer to improving treatments for T1D and ultimately finding a cure.”  

Funding and Research Support:

This study was supported by the Canucks for Kids Foundation, Genome BC, Genome Quebec, and Stemcell Technologies Inc. The researchers are supported by BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the 4 What Matters Foundation and JDRF.

The collection of samples for this study was facilitated by the BC Children’s Hospital BioBank. Development of the BC Children’s Hospital BioBank was made possible by support from Mining for Miracles, the BC mining community’s longstanding fundraising campaign for BC Children’s Hospital.

Read More:

Pesenacker AM, Wang AY, Singh A, Gillies J, Kim YW, Piccirillo CA, Nguyen D, Haining WN, Tebbutt SJ, Panagiotopoulos C, Levings MK. A Treg gene signature is a specific and sensitive biomarker to identify children with new onset type 1 diabetes. Diabetes. 2016 Mar 24 pii: db150572.