A new study led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) reveals a previously unknown type of immune cell. The discovery opens new avenues in the effort to develop novel therapies for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
The newly discovered cells resemble conventional T cells, yet are biased toward becoming T regulatory cells (Tregs), which protect the body from autoimmune disease.
“This study was eye-opening,” said study senior author and TSRI biologist Oktay Kirak. “You wouldn’t expect these cells to have this ability. The best analogy I have is Clark Kent turning into Superman. Clark Kent looks like an Average Joe, so no one would expect him to have the same abilities as Superman.”
Stopping Type 1 Diabetes
The body has an army of millions of immune cells. These cells contain receptors generated through random genetic rearrangements–a clever strategy to keep them ready to fight unfamiliar viruses and bacteria. This diverse pool leaves many questions for scientists, however, about which ones are active in specific diseases.
One puzzling disease is type 1 diabetes, in which immune cells mistakenly attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Scientists know that Tregs should be able control this autoimmune response, deflecting the attack. Current clinical trials are focusing on increasing the numbers of Treg cells and finding ways to make them enter the pancreas.
In the new study, researchers began to solve this problem by isolating an individual Treg from a mouse model of type 1 diabetes and inserting its nucleus–which contained the unique genetic immune receptor information–into a mouse egg cell that had its own nucleus removed.
Using this cloning method (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer), the scientists created a mouse model that produced only the original Treg, allowing them to study its origins and functions for the first time.