Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine were recently awarded two Type 1 Diabetes Special Statutory Funding Program grants from the NIH, totaling more than $5 million in research funding.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas. It affects approximately 1.25 million people in the United States, and thanks to previous research there are treatments for the disease, making it a chronic but manageable disorder. Researchers at UCSD hope to take type 1 diabetes research a step beyond development of treatments; they hope to answer some of the questions about what causes its onset.
According to a UCSD press release, two research teams are tackling the condition from different angles.
One effort, led by Maike Sander, MD, professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Cellular and Molecular Medicine, and Kelly Frazer, PhD, professor in the Department of Pediatrics, were awarded a $3.3 million research grant to discover the genetic origins of type 1 diabetes. Genetic risk factors have been identified in previous studies, but because the disease is so complex, there are many genetic variants amond people with diabetes.
“We know there is a genetic component to type 1 diabetes,” said Sander, director of the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center. “Some people have bad genetics leading them to be more prone to develop this disease. The key is to study the human condition and human cells to understand type 1 diabetes from the genes up.”
(Overview of the most significant possible symptoms of diabetes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
This study will focus on identifying "where the genetic risks are expressed, what variants are associated with them and what cellular processes are regulated." To do this, the team plans on using a combination of the latest computational methods, high-throughput molecular assays, and human pluripotent stem cells-based cell models.
“No one has done this before,” said Sander. “We want to identify new therapeutic targets for the prevention and treatment of type 1 diabetes by mapping out the mechanisms by which this disease begins. This is an approach that requires collaboration between researchers from multiple disciplines.”
A second research team at UCSD also recently received NIH funding to help advance understanding of type 1 diabetes. A $1.9 million innovator award was given to Neal Devaraj, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Devaraj is focusing on developing molecular imaging methods to measure beta cell numbers in the pancreas. These tools would be used to monitor the progression of type 1 diabetes, the effectiveness of treatment and to track the viability of transplanted cells.
Devaraj hopes that the improved imaging technology will be able to inform physicians if a patient is at risk of developing type 1 diabetes before onset of the disease.
“This is a new and exciting direction for our lab,” said Devaraj. “The development of methods that amplify PET signals could lead to valuable imaging tools for monitoring beta cell mass. It could have an enormous impact on the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of type 1 diabetes. Moreover, the same concept might enable us to image very small targets like tumors when they may be invisible by other means. This method has potential to be more broadly applied to other diseases.”
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