07:39pm Wednesday 22 January 2020

Potential anti-rejection drug for insulin cell transplantation

The best hope for restoring insulin production is for people to receive transplanted clusters of insulin-producing cells from the pancreas known as ‘Islets of Langerhans’.

Each pancreas has around a million islets, which maintain the body’s blood sugar levels in exquisite balance. Islets are obtained from a deceased donor pancreas – and while transplants have been successful for limited periods, islets are fragile, the body rejects donor cells strenuously, and anti-rejection drugs are highly toxic.

And even when heavy duty immunosuppressive drugs are given to a patient, that person still has Type 1 diabetes – the autoimmune disease that destroyed their insulin-producing cells in the first place.

The new reagent, generated in-house by Drs Helen McGuire and Cecile King from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has the potential to turn this situation around.

Given to diabetic mice for two weeks, starting the day before islet transplantation, the reagent allowed mice to accept the donor cells as their own – with no need for immunosuppressive drugs, and no Type 1 diabetes. Permanently.

The reagent is a cloned a cell surface receptor that mops up a harmful molecule known as IL-21, which appears to cause Type 1 diabetes. The cloned receptors compete with similar receptors on the body’s own killer immune cells, preventing them from destroying the transplant.

The findings are published in the international journal Diabetes, now online.

“Our reagent works as well in our model than drugs that are currently in clinical trials for islet transplantation,” said Dr King.

“Individual tissue types have their own molecular signature, and our bodies usually reject tissues they don’t recognise. In our experiments we used a very strong mismatch, and the mice still accepted the transplants without rejection.”

“If this works in people as it has in mice, then they would only have to take the drug for a brief time-window after surgery– then the transplant would be fine for life.”

“In this study, we’ve shown definitively that if the body’s killer T cells don’t get IL-21, they don’t reject the islet tissue. ”

“The next step would be to trial our IL-21 neutralising agent in people.”

Dr Dorota Pawlak, Head of Research Development at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said that the ability to replace insulin producing cells safely in people with Type 1 diabetes without the need for immune suppression would be a revolution for diabetes research. “This finding represents progress and it is important to acknowledge and honour advances that take us closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes.”

This research was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Type 1 (or juvenile) diabetes affects over 120,000 Australians and incidence is increasing every year. Typically striking young people, it results in the destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leaving the sufferer on a daily regime of painful injections and finger-prick tests. Unlike Type 2 diabetes, it is not possible to prevent Type 1. While insulin keeps people alive, it is not a cure and does not prevent the onset of the serious disease complications that dramatically shorten life expectancy.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is the world’s largest not-for-profit supporter of diabetes research, investing more than $100 million in the search to find a cure for Type 1 diabetes each year. Type 1 diabetes is a disease which strikes people suddenly, makes them dependent on multiple daily injections of insulin to survive and at risk of devastating health complications like blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and amputation. The mission of JDRF is constant: to find a cure for diabetes and its complications through the support of research.


The Garvan Institute of Medical Research was founded in 1963.  Initially a research department of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, it is now one of Australia’s largest medical research institutions with over 500 scientists, students and support staff. Garvan’s main research programs are: Cancer, Diabetes & Obesity, Immunology and Inflammation, Osteoporosis and Bone Biology, and Neuroscience. The Garvan’s mission is to make significant contributions to medical science that will change the directions of science and medicine and have major impacts on human health. The outcome of Garvan’s discoveries is the development of better methods of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately, prevention of disease.


All media enquiries should be directed to:

Alison Heather
Science Communications Manager

M: + 61 434 071 326
P: +61 2 9295 8128
E: a.heather “a” garvan.org.au

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