A novel T-cell subset associated with type 1 diabetes

A study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland demonstrated that a recently described T-cell subset, so-called peripheral T helper cells, may have a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. The frequency of circulating peripheral T helper cells was observed to be increased both in children with recently diagnosed type 1 diabetes and in healthy children who later progressed to type 1 diabetes. The study was published in the journal Diabetologia.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that typically manifests in childhood. In type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. In addition to genetic susceptibility, the appearance of autoantibodies in blood is predictive of future development of type 1 diabetes.

The appearance of autoantibodies before clinical diabetes is caused by B cell activation against proteins in the pancreatic islets. The activation of B cells in lymphoid tissues is, in turn, controlled by follicular helper T cells. Earlier work by Academy Research Fellow Tuure Kinnunen and his research group at the University of Eastern Finland has demonstrated that the frequency of blood follicular helper T cells is increased in children close to the onset of type 1 diabetes.

A similar ability to activate B cells was recently attributed to a novel T-cell subset. These so-called peripheral helper T cells resemble follicular helper T cells, but they express receptors that enable them to migrate to inflamed tissues.

The current study suggests a role for peripheral helper T cells in the development of type 1 diabetes. Researchers demonstrated that the frequency of these cells was increased in blood of both children with recently diagnosed type 1 diabetes as well as healthy, autoantibody-positive children. Importantly, the frequency was most clearly increased in those autoantibody-positive children who later developed type 1 diabetes.

“Based on our results, it is possible that peripheral helper T cells may have a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. This information could be employed in the development of better methods to predict type 1 diabetes risk and new immunotherapies for the disease. However, more studies need to be conducted to verify our results and to further characterize the functionality of peripheral helper T cells,” early stage researcher Ilse Ekman from the University of Eastern Finland notes.

The study was conducted utilizing samples from the Finnish DIPP study in which the development of type 1 diabetes is followed from birth in children with genetic risk for the disease. The study involved researchers from the Universities of Turku, Helsinki and Oulu as well as Harvard University.

For further information, please contact:

Early stage researcher Ilse Ekman, University of Eastern Finland, School of Medicine, ilse.ekman@uef.fi

Academy Research Fellow Tuure Kinnunen, University of Eastern Finland, School of Medicine, tel. +358 50 562 9349, tuure.kinnunen@uef.fi

Original research article:

Circulating CXCR5PD-1hi peripheral T helper cells are associated with progression to type 1 diabetes.

Ilse Ekman, Emmi-Leena Ihantola, Tyyne Viisanen, Deepak A. Rao, Kirsti Näntö-Salonen, Mikael Knip, Riitta Veijola, Jorma Toppari, Jorma Ilonen, Tuure Kinnunen. Diabetologia (2019) 62: 1681. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-019-4936-8

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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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