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CU Scientists Make Major Discovery In Type 1 Diabetes

AURORA, Colo (CBS4) - A University of Colorado research team is featured in the journal Science for making a major discovery in Type 1 diabetes. The scientists have pinpointed one potential cause of the disease.

"We've been studying T cells in Type 1 diabetes," said Thomas Delong, a research assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

T cells are part of the immune system. Their job is to kill foreign cells in the body to fight off disease. In the bodies of Type 1 diabetics, T cells are known to kill healthy insulin producing cells, called beta cells. Without the insulin producing cells, the body has trouble processing sugars. Delong and his team wanted to know why the immune system attacks healthy, beneficial cells.

"There has to be something happening in the beta cells that triggers the attack," Delong explained.

After 10 years of working in his lab, painstakingly stripping down the insulin producing cells and tracking reactions to T cells, Delong hit on an answer.

Thomas Delong
Thomas Delong (credit: CBS)

"We found a new type of protein modification," Delong told CBS4.

This new protein modification is actually a hybrid made up of half insulin and half something else, and it activates the T cell causing it to attack.

"Because the immune system sees that and thinks it might be foreign because it's never seen that before, it attacks the junction of these proteins," Delong explained.

A simple explanation of a complex chemical reaction that happens on a microscopic level, and can change a person's life forever. Delong knows the impact of Type 1 diabetes all too well. He was diagnosed with the disease when he was 12 years old. It set him on a path to find answers.

"I became interested in studying and asking questions, 'Why does this happen to me? Why does my immune system turn against me?'" he said.

It has taken years of hard work to uncover one answer. Delong's work is funded by the American Diabetes Association's Pathway to Stop Diabetes program. The 5-year grant is highly competitive, and Delong's team is the only one in Colorado to win it.

"The ADA, at the same time, helps me to give me a little breathing space," Delong said.

LINK: ADA Pathway to Stop Diabetes Grant Recipients

Five years of funding means that he can focus exclusively on his work instead of continually having to apply for new forms of funding. And he's got a lot of work ahead of him.

"If we are trying to find a cure for diabetes, we have to find a way to prevent the immune system from attacking," Delong said.

Scientists can now work on a way to stop the T cells from activating. Delong said that the discovery of this new protein modification could have implications in other autoimmune disease research.

Libby Smith is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. If you have a story you'd like to tell CBS4 about, call 303-863-TIPS (8477) or visit the News Tips section.

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