Microbiome Award-winner Anouk van Mourik looks for a possible prevention of type 1 diabetes in her research. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The body's own immune system, which normally attacks pathogens, in this case destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Insulin controls your blood sugar, and without it you cannot survive. With more than 20 million patients, this type of diabetes is a growing global problem. There is an urgent need for new treatments. Currently, patients are forced to inject insulin for their entire life. The reason why the immune system attacks the so-called insulin-producing beta cells is unknown. One possible explanation is 'molecular mimicry'.
Immune cells are activated by antigens. These are molecules that are found, for example, on bacteria and viruses. This way they are recognised by immune cells and eliminated. However, sometimes parts of these foreign antigens, called epitopes, resemble epitopes carried by the body's own cells (= mimicry). In that case, the immune system attacks these cells, resulting in an autoimmune disease. According to the molecular mimicry hypothesis, type 1 diabetes may be caused by an epitope produced by the intestinal bacterium Parabacteroides distasonis. This bacterial epitope, which closely resembles the epitopes on the beta cells in the pancreas, enters the body through the intestinal wall and then triggers an immune response in the pancreas, resulting in type 1 diabetes. Curiously, research on mice shows that when these epitopes are inoculated under the skin, the development of type 1 diabetes is actually delayed. Anouk van Mourik's research examines how this principle can be translated into future prevention of type 1 diabetes. For example by means of a vaccine with dead P. distasonis bacteria and/or the epitopes.
Microbiology investigates the smallest organisms, such as fungi, yeasts and bacteria. These microorganisms are the most powerful life on earth. The Microbiome Award has been created to make students enthusiastic about microbiology. Every year Micropia professor Remco Kort gives a lecture series about the human microbiome and how it functions in the event of illness and health. At the end of the series, the students write a research proposal with their newly acquired knowledge about the microbiome and recent research into it. The proposal describes an innovative application of microbes that can benefit our health or that of our planet.