Professor Sarah Richardson researching

A leading researcher at the University of Exeter has been awarded £1.5 million that will fund ground-breaking research into type 1 diabetes. Professor Sarah Richardson at the University of Exeter has been awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge – a partnership between the Steve Morgan Foundation, Diabetes UK and JDRF.

Dr Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor in Cellular Biomedicine at the University of Exeter has been awarded a prestigious Senior Research Fellowship. Her research will be funded by the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge – a partnership between the Steve Morgan Foundation, Diabetes UK and JDRF. She will investigate the root cause of type 1 diabetes – the immune system attack. Her award marks the start of a £50 million race towards a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Professor Richardson is one of three researchers across the UK to receive the prestigious Fellowship, made possible by the £50 million donation from the Steve Morgan Foundation.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. This means the pancreas can no longer produce insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels. More than 413,000 people in the UK are living with type 1 diabetes, including 6,415 people in Devon, and almost 49,000 people in the south west and south central regions.

Professor Sarah Richardson, Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter will investigate how and why the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in type 1 diabetes, and how the process may differ between people with the condition. Understanding the immune system’s different lines of attack will allow researchers to develop new, more targeted immunotherapy treatment options for people with type 1 diabetes.

Professor Richardson will also explore how beta cells sometimes resist the immune system attack and survive for years after diagnosis, identifying ways to arm lab-made beta cells, which could be transplanted into people with type 1, to protect against immune system attack.

Professor Richardson, said: “As a scientist, one of the things that interests me about diabetes is the way it affects people in extremely different ways. My fellowship will explore how the early development of the pancreas may influence the form of type 1 diabetes a person develops. Ultimately, this will help us tailor existing and emerging therapies to the individual, maximising the benefits for people with type 1 diabetes.

“I also aim to develop a better understanding of how beta cells can protect themselves from the immune attack, which not only holds huge promise for improving beta cell replacement strategies but has the potential to bring us closer to a cure.”

Steve and Sally Morgan, Founders of the Steve Morgan Foundation, said: “We are proud of the Grand Challenge partnership with Diabetes UK and JDRF UK, which aims to accelerate the advancement towards a breakthrough for people living with type 1 diabetes. We are delighted with the appointment of Professor Richardson’s Fellowship and look forward with anticipation to her discoveries and progress.”

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “We are thrilled to announce that Professor Richardson is one of the first scientists to be spearheading the Grand Challenge’s mission to deliver transformational new treatments and bring fresh hope of a cure for everyone living with type 1 diabetes.

“Professor Richardson’s research could lead to an armoury of new tailored treatments targeting the immune system’s attack, that could allow people with type 1 diabetes to be matched with the treatment that best suits them. We look forward to seeing how Professor Richardson’s discoveries will drive radical change for people with type 1 diabetes.” 

Rachel Connor, Director of Research Partnerships at JDRF UK, said: “Professor Richardson’s plan for her Fellowship provides an exciting opportunity to understand what drives the differences in type 1 diabetes between individuals, which make this condition so hard to manage.

“People who live with type 1 diabetes have long known that their condition affects everyone differently, and what works for one person may not work for another. Professor Richardson’s research will add precision and personalisation to type 1 diabetes treatment, ensuring people can benefit from the exciting therapies that are emerging. It will also uncover new insights into the destructive dance of the immune system and beta cells, which drives type 1 diabetes. This in turn could lead to new targets that could protect and preserve beta cells or calm the immune attack.” 

Becky Ford, an Exeter-based volunteer for Diabetes UK who lives with type 1, said: “As someone who has lived with type 1 diabetes for eight years, there’s no denying that technology has transformed my life. But the ultimate dream for anyone in my position would be to prevent or reverse the condition altogether.

“Research projects like these give hope to those of us living with 24/7 insulin dependence that we might one day be free of the stress, anxiety and physical impact of such an all-consuming condition. I’m thrilled to see Diabetes UK funding such exciting research.”

Claire Potts, an Exeter-based volunteer for Diabetes UK whose daughter lives with type 1, said: “This is another step closer to a future without type 1 diabetes for people such as my daughter. I hope this leads to the breakthrough that so many live in hope for.”

The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge was established following the Steve Morgan Foundation’s £50 million donation into type 1 diabetes research. For more than five years, the Grand Challenge has funded research with the greatest potential to lead to life-changing new treatments and ultimately a cure for type 1 diabetes.