Harvard Scientists Have Developed a Revolutionary New Treatment for Diabetes

University of Missouri scientists are partnering with Harvard and Georgia Tech to create a new diabetes treatment that involves transplanting insulin-producing pancreatic cells

Type 1 diabetes is estimated to affect around 1.8 million Americans. Although type 1 diabetes often develops in childhood or adolescence, it can occur in adulthood.

Despite active research, type 1 diabetes has no cure. Treatment methods include taking insulin, monitoring your diet, managing blood sugar levels, and exercising regularly. Scientists have also recently discovered a new treatment method that holds promise.

A group of researchers from the University of Missouri, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Harvard University has proved the successful use of a novel Type 1 diabetes treatment in a large animal model in a new study published in Science Advances on May 13th. Their method includes transferring insulin-producing pancreas cells, known as pancreatic islets, from a donor to a recipient without the need for long-term immunosuppressive medicines.

According to Haval Shirwan, a professor of child health and molecular microbiology and immunology at the MU School of Medicine and one of the study’s primary authors, people with Type 1 diabetes’ immune system may malfunction, leading it to target itself.

“The immune system is a tightly controlled defense mechanism that ensures the well-being of individuals in an environment full of infections,” Shirwan said. “Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system misidentifies the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas as infections and destroys them. Normally, once a perceived danger or threat is eliminated, the immune system’s command-and-control mechanism kicks in to eliminate any rogue cells. However, if this mechanism fails, diseases such as Type 1 diabetes can manifest.”

Diabetes impairs the body’s ability to produce or utilize insulin, a hormone that aids in the regulation of blood sugar metabolism. People with Type 1 diabetes are unable to manage their blood sugar levels because they do not produce insulin. This lack of control may result in life-threatening problems including heart disease, kidney damage, and vision loss.

Shirwan and Esma Yolcu, a professor of child health and molecular microbiology and immunology at the MU School of Medicine, have spent the last two decades targeting an apoptosis mechanism that prevents “rogue” immune cells from causing diabetes or rejection of transplanted pancreatic islets by attaching a molecule called FasL to the islets’ surface.

“A type of apoptosis occurs when a molecule called FasL interacts with another molecule called Fas on rogue immune cells, and it causes them to die,” said Yolcu, one of the study’s first authors. “Therefore, our team pioneered a technology that enabled the production of a novel form of FasL and its presentation on transplanted pancreatic islet cells or microgels to prevent being rejected by rogue cells. Following insulin-producing pancreatic islet cell transplantation, rogue cells mobilize to the graft for destruction but are eliminated by FasL engaging Fas on their surface.”

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