New immune cell subset associated with progression to type 1 diabetes

A study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland revealed that a recently described T cell subset may have a central role in the development of type 1 diabetes. These so called follicular T helper cells were found to be increased at the onset of type 1 diabetes, and the phenomenon was linked with the presence of autoantibodies commonly associated with the disease.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the immune system destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Type 1 diabetes typically manifests in childhood and early adolescence. Diabetes-associated autoantibodies are highly predictive of type 1 diabetes risk and they can be typically detected in the blood of patients even years before the onset of the disease.

T cells are immune cells that have an important role orchestrating the functions of the immune system. Follicular helper T cells are a recently described subset of T cells that have a central role in activating B cells, which in turn are responsible for producing antibodies. Since the emergence of autoantibodies is a common feature of type 1 diabetes development, it is plausible that follicular T helper cells have a role in the disease process. This notion is also supported by evidence recently generated in the murine model of type 1 diabetes.

In a study led by Academy Research Fellow Tuure Kinnunen, samples from the Finnish DIPP follow-up study were used. In the DIPP study, children with an increased genetic risk for developing type 1 diabetes are longitudinally followed for the development of the disease. In the current study, the frequency of blood follicular T helper cells was observed to increase close to the onset of type 1 diabetes. Moreover, the phenomenon was only observed in a subgroup of children that were positive for multiple diabetes-associated autoantibodies. This finding suggests a connection between the activation of follicular helper T cells and the activation of autoantibody-producing B cells in type 1 diabetes.

Taken together, the current results support the idea that follicular helper T cells have a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. Immune therapies that target these cells can therefore be envisioned to have potential in the prevention of type 1 diabetes.

The study also involved researchers from the Universities of Turku, Helsinki, Tampere and Oulu.

Research article:

Circulating CXCR5+PD-1+ICOS+ Follicular T Helper Cells Are Increased Close to the Diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes in Children with Multiple Autoantibodies. Tyyne Viisanen, Emmi-Leena Ihantola, Kirsti Näntö-Salonen, Heikki Hyöty, Noora Nurminen, Jenni Selvenius, Auni Juutilainen, Leena Moilanen, Jussi Pihlajamäki, Riitta Veijola, Jorma Toppari, Mikael Knip, Jorma Ilonen, Tuure Kinnunen. Diabetes 2016 Oct; db160714.

For further information, please contact:

Academy Research Fellow Tuure Kinnunen, School of Medicine, tel. +358 50 562 9349,


About Us

The University of Eastern Finland, UEF, is one of the largest universities in Finland. The activities of the UEF underscore multidisciplinarity, and the university is especially strong in research related to forests and the environment, health and well-being, and new technologies and materials. The UEF offers teaching in more than 100 major subjects. In addition to the high standard of teaching, the university offers its students a modern study environment, which is under constant development. The university comprises four faculties: the Philosophical Faculty, the Faculty of Science and Forestry, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies. The university’s campuses are located in the heart of beautiful eastern Finland in Joensuu, Kuopio and Savonlinna. The UEF is home to approximately 15 000 students and nearly 2 800 members of staff.


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