A white blood cell type may play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes

A researcher from Milan, Italy has discovered that neutrophils – a type of white blood cell that forms an essential part of the immune system – can help identify triggers and predictors of progression to type 1 diabetes (T1D).

In collaboration with TrialNet (an international network of researchers focused on understanding, prevention and treatment of T1D), Dr. Manuela Battaglia of the Ospedale di San Raffaele Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico analyzed the blood tests of 389 people at risk for the disease and discovered that those with a smaller amount of neutrophils have fewer functioning beta cells.

“Essentially, the lower the number of circulating neutrophils the less the body can produce insulin,” explains Dr. Battaglia.

Further analyses of pancreatic samples collected from donors all over the world at four different disease stages revealed that neutrophils release their nucleus’ content, including their DNA, triggering inflammation and increasing the risk of autoimmunization.

Working with the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, Dr. Battaglia and her colleagues observed abnormal content in the types and amounts of protein made among circulating neutrophils in individuals at risk for T1D. It was also noted that this behaviour led to the production of specific T1D-autoantibodies indicating that neutrophils may play a crucial role in the early stages of the disease.

Future work will focus on understanding why neutrophils are predictive of T1D, and whether targeting neutrophils can slow or stop its progression.

Dr. Battaglia has been funded by JDRF since 2008 when she was an early career scientist. She has received two subsequent grants to study the role of immunological cells in T1D.

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