Biotech breakthrough in islet cell replacement for type 1 diabetes

October 14, 2004

Northwestern University has received a major grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to advance technologies in the field of islet cell replacement for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

Principal investigator on the $1.5 million JDRF program project is Dixon B. Kaufman, M.D., professor and vice chair of research in the department of surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The grant represents a unique multidisciplinary initiative to enhance survival of transplanted islet cells in patients with type 1 diabetes, linking Northwestern University researchers in transplant surgery, endocrinology, materials science and engineering, chemical and biological engineering and chemistry.

The grant will complement other research in Kaufman's National Institutes of Health-funded clinical islet cell transplant program that will serve as the foundation for testing novel sources of insulin-secreting islet calls and new bioactive platforms on which the cells can be delivered. Design and development of these novel bioactive scaffolds will be conducted in collaboration with scientists in the Northwestern University Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine.

"We're very pleased to receive this grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation because it recognizes the importance of the interdisciplinary and translational research that is being done at Northwestern," said University President Henry S. Bienen. "By collaborating across disciplines, our outstanding faculty researchers are able to make important new discoveries in medical research and translate those into patient care much more quickly."

More than 1.3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, and each year over 13,000 children are diagnosed with the disease.

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys islet cells, which produce insulin, the hormone that enables the body to use sugar for fuel. The goal of islet cell transplantation is to replace the destroyed islet cells with functioning donor cells.

Although islet cell transplantation has been used successfully to treat certain individuals with type 1 diabetes, its widespread use has been impeded by a shortage of donor organs, inefficient islet engraftment and organ rejection.

"The collective efforts of the investigators in this extraordinary collaborative arrangement will be brought to bear on solving some of the most challenging obstacles impeding widespread application of cell replacement therapy for diabetes," Kaufman said.

"Together, we will hasten the cure of diabetes through the development of novel vehicles for the transplantation of insulin-secreting cells, and of powerful new imaging modalities capable of monitoring cell fate and function," Kaufman said.

Richard Insel, executive vice president of research for JDRF, said: "We are delighted to be supporting the interdisciplinary research program at Northwestern University. Although imperfect, islet transplantation has proven itself as a remarkable pathway for curing type 1 diabetes. As such, we look forward to the program's progress and findings and expect that they will be helpful to our efforts to find a cure."

Specifically, the grant will fund efforts to develop nano- and microscale biomaterials capable of creating a microenvironment favorable for islet survival and function via controlled delivery of biological factors that will accelerate engraftment and control the recipient's immune response.

One of the program's aims is to develop alternative sites for islet implantation, for example, in the abdomen, rather than use the current method of transplanting islet cells into the liver.

The researchers also will focus on developing precise islet cell-survival monitoring techniques, including contrast agents and probes, that will use real-time noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging of islet mass and function. This imaging technique will ultimately be able to be translated into human studies and clinical care.

Collaborating with Kaufman on this JDRF grant are William Lowe, M.D., professor and associate chair for research in the department of medicine; Samuel Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science, Chemistry and Medicine and director of the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM); Thomas J. Meade, professor of chemistry; biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology; and neurobiology and physiology; as well as Lonnie Shea, assistant professor, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering.

Northwestern University

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