In the autoimmune attack behind type 1 diabetes, you can think of T cells as an improperly trained SWAT team that homes in on insulin-producing beta cells rather than pathogens. Research at Joslin seeks to sort out the diabolically complicated details of their attack and to work toward steps that can be taken to stop it.
In one project, Thomas Serwold, Ph.D., employs mouse models to understand the cells within the thymus that help T cells to develop, and whether these cells can be altered to prevent autoimmune T cells from developing in the first place.
“Throughout life, T cells are produced in the thymus, each with a unique receptor that can bind only to certain protein fragments derived from pathogens,” explains Dr. Serwold. “Also within the thymus, epithelial cells act like teacher cells for the T cells, preventing those that might target the body’s own cells from graduating and leaving the thymus.”
“Developing techniques to manipulate the functions of these teacher cells will tell us a lot about how the autoimmune T cells that drive type 1 diabetes come to develop, and how they might be eliminated,” he adds.