Dr Emma Hamilton-Williams’ Holy Grail: Antigen-specific immunotherapy for T1D

Thursday, 4 Jul 2019

Can you describe the aim of this project in 10 words?

To develop a vaccine to prevent or treat type 1 diabetes

What have you discovered so far in this area?

We have developed a platform using liposome nanoparticles to deliver an immunotherapy for type 1 diabetes. Our goal is to use this therapy to shut down the autoreactive T cells that kill the insulin-producing islet beta cells in type 1 diabetes. So far we have used a mouse model of type 1 diabetes and found that by delivering one of the target antigens from the islets together with an immune modulator (active vitamin D3), we can re-educate the islet-specific T cells to change phenotype and become regulatory instead of pathogenic. We can use this most effectively at the time that hyperglycaemia first appears to substantially delay disease progression.

Is your research geared to prevention or treatment of T1D – or both?

Our goal is to develop a therapy that can be used both as treatment in recent-onset individuals and as a prevention in very high-risk individuals.

What aspect of this research interests you the most?

Type 1 diabetes is a very challenging disease for many reasons – it can occur so rapidly in young children, the pre-disease stage is silent so very hard to detect and therefore study, the autoimmune response is specific for quite a number of target proteins making it hard to control immunologically. For all these reasons, we don’t have any therapies other than insulin. So, I think I really like the intellectual challenge. Plus, the type 1 diabetes community is very inspiring to engage with.

How long before this work is likely to impact patient care?

We are planning to start the first clinical trial (phase I) next year. If all goes well, we would hope our immunotherapy could be approved in around 10 years.

What’s your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research career?

A highly specific and safe immunotherapy for type 1 diabetes that can prevent the disease ever developing in those at risk and safe enough to be used in the general population.

What is your biggest research hurdle?

Inducing permanent tolerance induction for very long-lasting disease protection. While we can substantially delay disease progression, we can’t yet stop it permanently.

Your top three amazing cell types?

  • Dendritic cells – they are the gatekeepers or decision makers that decide whether to activate an immune response or shut it down.
  • Regulatory T cells – these cells can prevent autoimmune disease in many models.
  • Islet beta cells – make and secrete an absolutely massive amount of insulin every day to regulate glucose levels.

Who has inspired you in work or life?

My PhD supervisor Professor Robyn Slattery is an incredibly determined and talented women who has overcome many obstacles in her career. She has inspired me to persevere, keep perspective and life balance.

What interests outside the lab help you create work-life balance?

I have two kids at primary school and spend a lot of time with them – currently we are enjoying a lot of cooking together and have been learning to make ravioli pasta. Cooking is a bit of a passion of mine.

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