Researchers believe they have made a breakthrough that could help find ways to prevent type 1 diabetes, after catching immune cells at the "scene of the crime".
The St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research team in Melbourne managed to isolate immune cells in the pancreas of an organ donor who had the disease.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune cells mistakenly destroy the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
The researchers said that until now, it was not known what components of the insulin-producing cells the immune cells targeted.
It is hoped the find will help researchers manipulate the immune system to try to find a cure.
Researcher Dr Stuart Mannering has labelled the discovery a "triumph".
"What we've been able to do for the first time is look at the immune cells that burrow into the part of the body where insulin is made, which are the islets found in one's pancreas," Dr Mannering told the ABC.
"What we've been able to do for the first time is take out islets from a person who has sadly died but had type 1 diabetes, and study these immune cells."
"How I like to describe it is at the scene of the crime.
"So if killing the insulin-producing cells is the crime, we have tried to examine which immune cells are at that scene and what they are doing."
Dr Mannering said they had suspected how the cells interacted from past genetic studies but had never been able to study it in detail.
"We've known from studying slices of tissue that the immune cells infiltrate the part of the body where insulin is made, but this is the first time we have been able to keep them alive and study their function."
Discovery 'will help target efforts'
According to Diabetes Australia, the onset of type 1 diabetes, often referred to as juvenile diabetes, usually occurs in people under 30, but can occur at any age.
Around 120,000 Australians have been diagnosed with the disease, and the exact cause is unknown.
It differs from type 2 diabetes, which has well-established risk factors such as being overweight or obese, poor diet and insufficient exercise, and is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia.
The director of the St Vincent's Institute, Professor Tom Kay, said the breakthrough would be felt world-wide.
"It will immediately have an affect on steps to try and prevent and cure the disease," Professor Kay said.
"There are clinical trials taking place around the world to try and halt the immune process that destroys the insulin-producing cells."This research will target those efforts much better to a particular part of the insulin molecule."