Dr. Allison Bayer Awarded New Grants to Further Immune Tolerance Research

Miami, FL (January 24, 2017) – Allison Bayer, Ph.D., is seeking balance – particularly when it comes to discovering a cure for type 1 diabetes. Dr. Bayer, Research Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and her team are investigating ways to reset the immune system as a means of promoting immune tolerance and reversing autoimmunity in those living with the disease. Now, funding from two new grants will help her build upon promising findings and move closer to developing innovative clinical therapies for patients. 

Dr. Bayer is the recipient of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation’s (DRIF) 2017 Marc S. Goodman Prize for an Outstanding Young Scientist, an annual award established by Mr. Goodman, former DRIF National Chairman, and his family to honor his dedication to finding a cure in memory of his daughter Stacy Joy Goodman, who lost her battle to type 1 diabetes at age 17. Upon presenting the award this past Sunday, Mr. Goodman said, “Stacy wanted to be a doctor so she could find a cure for diabetes, and I’m sure she would have been outstanding at her job. I’m very happy to present this year’s Goodman Prize to an outstanding scientist at the DRI, Dr. Allison Bayer, who is focused on one of the most important areas for achieving a cure – immune tolerance.”

Dr. Allison Bayer, center, with Esther and Marc Goodman

Dr. Bayer was also awarded a multi-year grant from the American Diabetes Association (ADA), Interplay of innate and adaptive immunity in autoimmune diabetes, to further investigate the relationship between key cell groups of the immune system that could enhance or hinder tolerance.

Dr. Bayer’s research is focused on the role of Regulatory T cells (Tregs), cells of the immune

system that inhibit destructive responses against the body’s own “self.” In people with autoimmune conditions, like type 1 diabetes, there is a misbalance in Treg cells, either due to reduced numbers of Tregs or because the Tregs are dysfunctional, resulting in a loss of regulation to counter an attack by the T effector cells (Teff). The goal is to restore this balance by expanding the numbers of Treg cells using novel cell-based approaches.

One strategy, called adoptive transfer, involves correcting for this deficiency by giving Tregs from one’s self or from another individual. But not all Tregs are alike. Dr. Bayer has discovered that different subsets of the Treg compartment (the total population of Tregs) have a higher affinity toward certain cells, like insulin-producing cells, and may be used to protect these particular cell types. In recent experiments, Dr. Bayer has shown that the infusion of islet-specific Tregs achieved 100 percent remission of diabetes in recipients while the other immune responses remained intact – a significant finding that could pave the way for targeted therapeutic approaches in patients. 

This type of Treg therapy, however, is hindered by the lack of a sufficient number of these cells, coupled with the ability for the Tregs to survive and function long-term. To resolve this challenge, Dr. Bayer points to the need for the right biological environment in which the Tregs can thrive. 

“While it is important to explore strategies for the use of expanded populations of Treg cells for effective immune regulation, understanding the optimal environment needed to support the long-term stability and function of Tregs is critical for any strategy aimed at resetting the immune system to favor regulation over destructive responses to insulin-producing cells,” says Dr. Bayer. A new research pathway is providing important clues for addressing these issues: examining the interplay between the body’s innate and adaptive immune system, an often overlooked factor in the design of therapies for type 1 diabetes.  

The immune system is broadly divided into two categories. The innate immune system is the first line of defense and immediately responds to any invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. The adaptive immune system is the learned response, or the “downstream” arm of the immune system. Not only is this secondary immune response more complex than the innate, but adaptive immunity also includes a “memory” that makes future responses against a specific invader, or antigen, more efficient. Thus far, efforts to combat type 1 have been focused on the adaptive immune system, of which Treg and Teff cells are a part. 

Natural Killer, or NK, cells are the attackers of the innate immune system and their role in this interplay has only recently been investigated. However, NK cells may affect the regulatory function of the adaptive immune system. Dr. Bayer and her team have identified different subsets of NK cells in experimental models of type 1 diabetes that resemble those found in humans. They also found that one of the NK subsets expresses a unique genetic signature that includes up to 10 genes that have been previously associated with an increased risk of type 1 diabetes. The recent grant awards will allow her to further investigate the role of NK cells and whether they promote an unfavorable or favorable environment for the Treg cells.   

“The identification of functional NK subsets and their inflammatory and regulatory roles would allow a better understanding of their roles in autoimmunity, how NK cells impact the Treg compartment, and ultimately, allow us to develop novel therapies for patients with type 1 diabetes,” said Dr. Bayer. “I am grateful for this significant funding that will support my continued research for the benefit of people living with this disease.”

The Marc S. Goodman Prize
is awarded to Outstanding Young Scientists
at the Diabetes Research Institute
whose extraordinary talent and commitment
to excellence will help speed
the DRI toward a biological cure for diabetes.

2014 Chris Fraker, Ph.D.

2014 Giacomo Lanzoni, Ph.D.

2015 Alice Tomei, Ph.D.

2016 David Baidal, M.D.

2017 Allison Bayer, Ph.D.

Lori Weintraub, APR

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