Passion to Prevent Type 1 Diabetes

When Li Zhang, MD, PhD, was a practicing physician in China, many of her patients were living with diabetes. She observed that her type 2 diabetes patients could have a mostly normal life with prescription medication and insulin. However, her type 1 diabetes patients could not. Type 1 diabetes patients tend to have more severe life-threatening complications such as heart disease, stroke or kidney disease and have a significantly shorter life span. It was this experience that drove her to research a way to improve the life for type 1 diabetes patients and eventually prevent the disease.

Dr. Zhang already has established an antibody therapy that can protect mice from getting diabetes that was published in mAbs (“A monoclonal antibody with broad specificity for the ligands of insulin B:9-23 reactive T cells prevents spontaneous type 1 diabetes in mice,” Nov. 5, 2020). The success in diabetic mice encouraged Dr. Zhang to translate this antibody therapy into human studies.

Today, she has successfully identified a lead antibody targeting a human type 1 diabetes antigen. She is actively testing the protection of these antibodies in humanized mice to understand if these antibodies can protect humanized mice from getting diabetes. Zhang notes, “If we can prevent diabetes in humanized mice with this antigen, this suggests we can prevent diabetes in humans.

In Dr. Zhang's words

“If we can prevent diabetes in humanized mice with this antigen, this suggests we can prevent diabetes in humans.”
–Li Zhang, MD, PhD

Zhang lab team
abstract science background

Type 1 diabetes is a complicated autoimmune disease characterized by unwanted immune cells damaging self-islets. Another innovative approach to reduce the onset of type 1 diabetes is to balance the immune system by supplying protective immune cells.

Dr. Zhang already has discovered that engineered immune T cells can delay the approach of type 1 diabetes in mice, supported by a National Institutes of Health grant. She recently received a $340,000 federal grant to explore engineered protective regulatory T cells (Tregs) that target a type 1 diabetes self-antigen related to HLA-DQ8, which is part of a gene class that is responsible for causing type 1 diabetes in 60 percent of individuals living with the disease.

Using the Lilly Human Phage Display Library, a capability made available to the IBRI, Dr. Zhang and her collaborators have identified human antigen-specific antibodies. Dr. Zhang’s perspective is that the antigen-specific antibody and regulatory T cell therapies, alone or in combination, have great potential for clinical application to reduce type 1 diabetes effectively and safely.

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