A major breakthrough is being hailed after researchers find the Clea16 gene could lead to the prevention of type 1 diabetes.
A study team at Harvard’s Joslin Diabetes Centre identified that the Clea16 gene appears to regulate how immune system T cells are educated. The findings suggest the gene is associated with autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes.
Researchers studied Clea16 in 40 mice genetically engineered to develop type 1 diabetes. When they turned off the Clea16 gene in the mice, most of the mice were protected from diabetes.
Dr. Stephan Kissler, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, explained: “Out of more than 40 mice two became diabetic, whereas in the group that didn’t have the gene knocked down about 60 percent of the mice became diabetic. So it was a very big difference.”
They subsequently observed that the gene controls T cell education and is involved in how type 1 diabetes develops through autophagy – the process in which cells digest their own waste proteins and recycle them on their cell surfaces.
Autophagy can occur if cells are infected with a virus or short of nutrients. However, thymic epithelial cells (TECs), which teach T cells which proteins are supposed to be in the body, can create changes in autophagy.
“By changing autophagy in TECs you change T cell selectio, and by changing T cell selection you change the risk of autoimmune disease,” Kissler added.
Clea16 was observed by researchers to be involved in human cell autophagy. They now hope to assess if it can affect the human thymus, which could reveal a lot about type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases if Clea16 can affect the education of human T cells.

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