Using CRISPR to catch rogue diabetes-causing cells

12 November 2015
Related topics
A $60,000 grant will support Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Charis Teh to determine whether rogue immune cells that attack the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes, can be foiled.
Dr Charis Teh in lab looking down microscope
Dr Charis Teh has been awarded a $60,000 Diabetes
Australia Research Program (DARP) grant.

The Diabetes Australia Research Program (DARP) grant was presented to Dr Teh at a Government House ceremony in Melbourne last night. DARP grants fund young talented researchers working towards the prevention, management and cure of diabetes.

Dr Teh is a postdoctoral fellow working with Dr Daniel Gray in institute’s Immunology division. She said the grant would support a study using exciting new CRISPR technology to find missing pieces of the diabetes puzzle.

“CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that has the power to dramatically shorten timeframes for fundamental research, fast-tracking discoveries and better treatments for the community,” said Dr Teh.

“It’s exciting to use this new technology to make critical discoveries that will seek to prevent or cure diabetes.”

Figures show that around 120,000 Australians are living with type 1 diabetes, and eight people develop the disease each day.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when our immune defenses mistakenly attack and destroy our body’s own cells – in this case, cells in the pancreas that manufacture insulin. This is why people with diabetes require daily insulin injections.

“While it has been known for many years that immune cells – called T cells – lead this misguided attack, we don’t know how to effectively switch this destructive autoimmune response off,” Dr Teh said. “This project will investigate whether the secret behind how the autoimmune response develops lies in our genes.”

By narrowing the gene-hunt down to a list of ‘suspects’, Dr Teh hopes to identify which genes are at the root of diabetes.

“We will use CRISPR to put each gene on the list out of action,” she said. “Interrupting the gene’s function could either speed up the process of diabetes, or slow it down, revealing clues about the gene’s role in causing the disease.”

As most of the genes on Dr Teh’s list have not been studied in relation to diabetes, knowledge gained from the study will have an important impact on the type 1 diabetes field.

“Science is mainly driven by predicting what might happen, but in this case the study is unbiased…we aim to find something that will make a difference,” said Dr Teh.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said Dr Teh’s novel approach would make important contributions to combating diabetes.

“Type 1 diabetes is increasing, particularly in young children which is when the disease usually develops,” Professor Hilton said. “In the lead up to World Diabetes Day, it is especially timely to reflect upon the important research that is generously supported by organisations such as Diabetes Australia.”

Further information

Arunee Wilson
Communications Officer
P: +61 3 9345 2719
M: +61 478 714 757
E: wilson.a@wehi.edu.au

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