Australian scientists have discovered that when a complex sugar crucial to the survival of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells is degraded by the body’s immune system, the beta cells die.
The sugar, heparan sulphate, helps in the defense of beta cells against destruction from oxidation caused by free radicals. In people with type 1 diabetes, immune system cells produce an enzyme called heparanase, which depletes heparan sulphate. With their defense against oxidation stripped away, beta cells suffer damage or death.
Scientists at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra found that if they replaced heparan sulphate in beta cells, the cells survived and were protected from damage by oxidation.
The Australian findings point the way to a new therapy that could help type 1 patients protect their remaining beta cells from further degradation. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the scientists plan to use their discovery to develop new drugs and have already set up a biotechnology company to do so.
The research was published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.