Cells that cause diabetes do so by launching aggressive attacks on insulin proteins, Yale researchers have found. This finding could lead to strategies for diverting these attacks and thwarting the disease.

Published in the September issue of Nature Medicine, the study is the first to identify the autoantigen recognized by diabetes-causing CD8 T cells (T lymphocytes) in the Non-Obese Diabetic Mouse, one of the best animal models for research of human diabetes.

These findings should make it easier to discover the genetic and environmental influences that allow autoreactive clones — cells that react to the body’s own proteins — to emerge and thrive in people with diabetes, according to F. Susan Wong, M.D., Ph.D., an associate research scientist in the Section of Immunobiology.

“This is the first time that the target of CD8 cells that cause Type 1 diabetes has been recognized,” said Wong, one of a team of a half-dozen investigators who published the study. “Now that we know that insulin is an important autoantigenic target, we can use this knowledge to find out how to prevent the attacks.”