DRI Awarded Several Grants to Further Cure-Focused Research

Dr. Norma Kenyon and Dr. Dora Weinberg in the preclinical research lab at the Diabetes Research Institute
Dr. Norma Kenyon and her team will be investigating a new technology to advance the use of pig islets as an alternative cell source.

We’re pleased to announce that the Diabetes Research Institute has been awarded a number of peer-reviewed grants to further our cure-focused research efforts. This new funding will support programs ranging from studying a new technology to make pig islets a viable cell supply option; to expanding stem cell studies using our “oxygen sandwich” and making this cutting-edge device available to other researchers; and to investigating safer and more effective drugs, using small molecules, that can block autoimmunity and prevent rejection.

Thanks to the generous private support provided through the DRI Foundation – your donations – our researchers are able take these promising findings to the next level by securing outside funding and furthering progress.  

Below are additional details of the work these grants will support: 

DRI's Chris Fraker and Juan Domiguez-Bendala invented the "oxygen sandwich," an important cell culture device.
Drs. Camillo Ricordi, Chris Fraker (standing) and Juan Dominguez-Bendala (seated) will be conducting Phase II studies using the “oxygen sandwich.”

• Advance the study of pig islets for their potential to ease the shortage of cells available for transplant into humans. Researchers have known for years that pig islets could provide an unlimited supply of cells for transplant into patients with diabetes, since pig insulin differs from human insulin by only one amino acid. The challenge has been identifying ways to prevent the human rejection of pig islets, which would be vigorous, without the need for immunosuppression.

With this grant, DRI scientists will collaborate with others to advance an innovative technology that allows pig islets to be transplanted without rejection or immune suppression. The technology, called surrogate tolerogenesis (ST), is designed to induce tolerance of the donor pig prior to islet cell transplantation. ST has been shown effective in initial studies. The grant will allow researchers, including the DRI’s Dr. Norma Sue Kenyon, to conduct a more extensive study with the hope of obtaining FDA approval to move forward with clinical trials. 

Dr. Peter Buchwald (right) and his team are working to identify small molecule-based drugs that can block autoimmunity and prevent transplant rejection. 

• Explore clinical uses for our “oxygen sandwich” which provides maturing stem cells with an oxygen-rich environment. This grant will allow DRI researchers to expand the study and use of the device, which provides maturing stem cells with an oxygen environment that’s more like the native pancreas. In Phase 1 studies, our researchers showed that, when compared to culture dishes traditionally used in the lab, our oxygen sandwich improved the viability and function of maturing stem cells. In the Phase II studies, DRI scientists hope to further validate the initial findings by extensive replication.

In addition to validating initial research, this Phase II study, which will be conducted by DRI’s Drs. Camillo Ricordi, Juan Dominguez-Bendala, and Chris Fraker (the inventor of the device), along with industry partners, will also involve defining a process to manufacture the oxygen sandwich. The device has shown so much promise in DRI labs, researchers want to make the oxygen sandwich available to scientists worldwide — for potential use not only in the field of diabetes but in any area of cell research where the device could be of benefit.

• Identify new drugs that can interfere with the cascade of events leading to autoimmune disorders and islet transplant rejection. A five-year grant, awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will allow DRI researchers to identify new drugs that can interfere with so-called co-stimulatory interactions. These interactions appear to play a critical role in the activation of immune cells and, with this grant, DRI researchers will be building on previous studies that show small molecules can be used to block the interactions. In the new study, led by the DRI’s Peter Buchwald, Ph.D., scientists will seek more effective ways to inhibit the interactions so that safer, more effective immune therapies can be made available to patients with, or at risk of developing, type 1 diabetes.

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