Scientific collaboration has always been a hallmark of the Diabetes Research Institute, where an open-door philosophy and willingness to share new findings has changed the international research paradigm. Today, these strategic alliances are playing an increasingly critical role in the effort to cure diabetes by opening up new doors of discovery and aggregating expertise in key research areas.
“We actively seek partners who bring unique talents to the table, regardless of where their base institutions may reside, with each contributing simultaneously to answer a critical question that is perhaps unanswerable unless we all work together,” says DRI Scientific Director Camillo Ricordi, M.D.
Accordingly, the DRI hosted several leading scientists over the last few months who came to Miami to present their latest findings and join together on novel research initiatives aimed at re-educating the immune and restoring tolerance, and increasing cell supply. Below is a summary of the projects that were shared during their visit:
Reactivating Insulin-Producing Cells
Bart Roep, M.D., Ph.D., of Leiden University Medical Centre in Leiden, Netherlands, has recently demonstrated that islet cells may be reactivated, even years after the initial diabetes diagnosis. His recent study refutes the long-standing belief that those with type 1 have no insulin-producing cells left at all. It seems that many people do have the cells, although the cells are not active.
Dr. Roep, whose research focuses on developing immunological intervention strategies in type 1 diabetes, has developed methods to identify and study white blood cells that are involved in the destruction of the islets. Further studies will focus on developing a vaccine that specifically targets these cells. He will be working with the DRI’s Luca Inverardi, M.D., Jay Skyler, M.D. and Alberto Pugliese, M.D., and their teams to further investigate these strategies.
Re-educating the Immune System with Stem Cells
Drs. Inverardi, Skyler and Pugliese, together with Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, are also involved in another exciting project with Yong Zhao, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois/Chicago. Dr. Zhao has completed a study in Chinese patients with type 1 diabetes of long duration and shown that recirculation of the patient’s blood cells through a machine seeded with stem cells was followed by an increase in insulin production in patients that were not producing any insulin before the treatment. It is believed that exposure of the patients’ white blood cells to the stem cells may re-educate the immune system and facilitate regeneration of insulin producing cells.
Dr. Inverardi, who was very interested in the study, provided commentary for the news story and shared the findings with our other DRI scientists. Dr. Zhao was invited to the DRI to present his work on the preliminary study conducted in China. The researchers are now exploring avenues for working together and further developing the therapeutic efficiency of this approach.
Learning from Cancer
Vincenzo Bronte, M.D., professor of immunology at the University of Verona in Italy, is a world-recognized immunologist who pioneered the field of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs), which are special immune cells found in large number surrounding tumors. These cells interfere with the body’s ability to detect and destroy these malignancies. He and his colleagues are investigating methods to eliminate MDSCs in cancer patients in order to destroy the tumors.
At the DRI, Dr. Inverardi and his team are working with Dr. Bronte to achieve the opposite result. They are focusing on developing strategies aimed at increasing the number of MDSCs to protect transplanted insulin-producing cells and eliminate the need for powerful anti-rejection drugs.
Addressing Cell Supply with Pig Islets
Long-time DRI collaborator Bernhard Hering, M.D., professor surgery and scientific director of the Schulze Diabetes Institute at the University of Minnesota, has been pursuing the use of pathogen-free pigs – a special “clean” herd of pigs – as an unlimited source of insulin-producing islets cells. He and his team have conducted a series of pre-clinical trials using innovative immunosuppressive therapies, which have resulted in prolonged insulin independence in the study models.
At the DRI, several research teams have been working with Dr. Hering and preparing to conduct clinical (patient) transplantation trials using the pig islets together with the new cocktails of drugs, as well as testing the new conformal coating encapsulation methods developed and patented by our tissue engineering team (see Under the Microscope with Chris Fraker).