In a world first, Australian researchers have caught deadly auto-immune cells red-handed at the crime scene in what is becoming an amazing spell of good news for science in the quest of a cure for diabetes.

“It’s really extremely rare to get that sort of opportunity,” said Dr Stuart Mannering, an immunologist at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research on the organisation’s website on Tuesday.  “It’s really given us an unprecedented insight.”

Dr Mannering [pictured from St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne] and his team made the breakthrough owing to the donated pancreas of a 19 year-old man who died of type 1 complications. Type 1 occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas.

Until the Melbourne institute’s finding, it was not known exactly what components of the insulin-producing cell molecule the immune cells targeted in humans.

“It’s like catching, arresting and identifying criminals in the act,” said Kristen Hazelwood, Diabetes NSW Head of Education and Health Services. “Nobody has ever done this in humans before.”

By identifying the exact portion of insulin that is targeted – C-peptide, the study will have an immediate impact, particularly in the United States, where only last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first-ever clinical trial of beta cell encapsulation therapy.

The study, which will be conducted on 40 patients across North America, will put cells with the capacity to secrete insulin in a glucose-responsive manner in a protective capsule and implant them into the patient’s skin. The cells, which are shielded from the body’s autoimmune attack, will sense a person’s glucose levels and independently administer the required amounts of insulin.

“It may lead to a cure, but the main thing is that this therapy could eliminate the whole pricking and monitoring process, making life a whole lot easier and safer for people with type 1, whose lives are threatened daily if they do not adhere to this rigorous routine,” Diabetes NSW CEO Sturt Eastwood said of the study.

Earlier last week, international media carried reports from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, where researchers guided by professor in experimental endocrinology, Per-Olof Berggren PhD, revealed news of studies using the “immune privilege” of the human eye, which is one of only a few bodily organs with resistance to autoimmune cells.

The eye is not only interesting to researchers because of its potential to act as a shield, but also because it is the only perfectly transparent tissue in the body.

So what does all this mean? Essentially, this means that instead of injecting insulin into the body through the bloodstream, people living with type 1 diabetes could transplant pancreatic islet cells into their eyes, protecting the new cells from being attacked by the immune system.

The transparency of the eye also allows scientists to see into the body, observing the integrity and survival of the islets, as well as how the immune system responds during attack.

The program, called Living Window, has had some success in mice and baboons, but has also revealed that the eye is not fully ‘privileged.’ While immune invasion in the eye is much lower than in other parts of the body, it still does exist.

Diabetes NSW Head of Health and Education Services Kristen Hazelwood said that the research was nevertheless full of promise.

“Key findings are that the eye is attacked with much less aggression than other organs and that we have full view of the body responding,” Ms Hazelwood said. “This is fantastic research and could be a real turning point in the plausible cure for type 1 diabetes.”