Diabetes Research Institute Develops Revolutionary Technique to Accelerate Research

Image of islet cells (shown in red) engrafted in the anterior chamber of the eye, with the dense blood supply to the islets shown in green.

(March, 2008) — For the first time ever, scientists can view how transplanted insulin-secreting cells, called islet cells, function when they are inside a living organism. Researchers from the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) at the University of Miami Miller School Of Medicine and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden published their findings on line March 7 in Nature Medicine. Although still in the experimental stages of clinical research, islet cell transplantation is currently considered the most promising method for curing type 1 diabetes.

“Up until now we have had no clear way to directly view and monitor how transplanted insulin producing cells function after they are infused into a patient,” explains Camillo Ricordi, M.D., scientific director of the Diabetes Research Institute. “This new technique allows us to study transplanted tissues with sophisticated multiphoton confocal microscopy technology, as if we were observing the transplants through a window in real time. It lets us follow biological processes such as the effect of a novel intervention, for example. One of the biggest problems with islet cell transplantation has been having enough of the insulin producing cells survive the transplant process itself; now we have a window into that living world and this will expedite research considerably.”

The DRI scientific team transplanted pancreatic mouse islets into the anterior chamber of a mouse eye, and then viewed the islet transplant through the cornea, as if it were a living window. After transplantation, the islets actually engrafted on the iris, became vascularized and innervated, retained their cellular make-up, responded to stimulation, and actually reverted diabetes in the animal — processes that were able to be ‘watched’ for the first time as they unfolded.

“Using novel laser-scanning microscopy allows you to see deeper into tissue,” explains Alejandro Caicedo, Ph.D., research assistant professor of surgery at the Diabetes Research Institute and one of the senior authors of the study. “One of the things we were able to see right away was how the islets established their blood supply, which is a crucial step in the transplantation process because islets need a large blood supply to survive. Although islets make up 1-percent of the pancreas, they get as much as 40-percent of the organ’s blood supply.”

Using this novel technology, DRI researchers were also able to watch how the immune system launches its attack on the islets cells, something that occurs in the natural course of type 1 diabetes onset. This viewing platform also gives scientists a way to watch the body’s response to new therapeutic strategies that attempt to save islets from this deadly immune system attack.

Per-Olof Berggren, Ph.D., professor in experimental endocrinology at Karolinska Institutet adjunct professor of surgery at the Miller School, and the originator of the actual study, explains “that this experimental platform is invaluable in understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating pancreatic beta cell function and survival subsequent to transplantation. But it is also a versatile tool for studying non-invasively and longitudinally in vivo endocrine pancreas development, signal-transduction, gene expression and molecular details regarding vascularization and innervation under normal conditions and in diabetes. The experimental platform can also be successfully used for in vivo drug screening in relation to diabetes.”

The unique use of the eye as a research tool to watch islet cell function has now led to a collaboration between the DRI and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the Miller School of Medicine. The two Centers of Excellence plan to further explore the development of the eye as a possible site for islet transplantation.

“It was very exciting to meet with the DRI team when they first showed us the results on the reversal of diabetes following experimental transplantation of insulin producing cells in the eye,” said Eduardo Alfonso, M.D., interim chairman, professor, and Edward W.D. Norton Chair in Ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. “We are looking forward to this collaborative effort to see if this novel approach could one day have a clinical application.”

“The synergy of two of our Centers of Excellence working together toward a cure for such a debilitating disease is the key to making the scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that will benefit all humankind,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., senior vice president for medical affairs and dean of the Miller School of Medicine. “To have this level of collaboration going on at one institution, with the help from our partners in Sweden, will truly help us move the science forward in an even more expedient manner.”

The Diabetes Research Institute is a recognized world leader in cure-focused research. Since its inception in the early 1970s, the DRI has made significant contributions to the field of diabetes research, pioneering many of the techniques used in cellular transplantation. From innovations in islet isolation and transplant procedures to advances in cell biology and immunology, the DRI is now harnessing the power of emerging technologies to develop new cell-based therapies to restore insulin production. For the millions of families already affected by diabetes who are looking to the world of science for answers, the Diabetes Research Institute is the best hope for a cure.  

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