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New Multimillion-Dollar Center to Create a Fast Track for Diabetes Cure Focused on Islet Cell Transplantation

Diabetes Research Initiative Funds 32 Scientists at Harvard Boston, Massachusettes
September 10, 1998

Hoping to put a cure for Type 1 diabetes on a fast track, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International (JDF) and Harvard Medical School have focused an unprecedented combination of experts in diabetes and many other scientific fields on finding a cure for diabetes.

The new JDF Center for Islet Cell Transplantation at Harvard Medical School will launch an ambitious multidisciplinary attack on one of diabetes's most tantalizing yet frustrating fields of researchreplacing the body's natural insulin-producing cells, which have been destroyed in people with Type 1 diabetes. The Foundation will provide approximately $20 million over the next five years to the researchers, which include Harvard faculty from seven affiliated institutions.

"We at JDF are proud to see our dream of successful islet cell transplantation without immunosuppression put on the fast track," said JDF Chairman of the Board John J. McDonough. "As someone who has had Type 1 diabetes for 56 years and as the parent of a daughter with Type 1, I want to assure her, and all those who suffer from diabetes, that we are doing everything possible to find the cure."

"For 28 years the tireless support of our volunteers has helped advance diabetes research worldwide. Now, thanks to the Florence DeGeorge Islet Research Challenge Grant, which provided initial funding for this Center, we are able to fund this highly collaborative, goal-oriented approach, which we hope will act as a model for all of our research programs," added McDonough.

The new Center is made possible through a $5-million pledge named the Florence A. DeGeorge Islet Research Challenge Grant. The DeGeorge family foundation has provided these funds to help find a cure for diabetes and its complications through the support of research. "Our concern has always been to accelerate a cure for this devastating disease through islet cell research. We believe that the initiative with the Harvard Medical School and associated researchers points the way in accelerating islet cell research and transplantation as a potential way of accomplishing our goal," said Lawrence DeGeorge. "My wife, Florence, and our whole family are pleased to be able to make this contribution to this important and innovative Center." Diabetes kills one American every three minutes and reduces life expectancy by as much as one third. It consumes one out of every eight U.S. health-care dollars. Millions of people with diabetesincluding many infantsdepend on several insulin injections every day to stay alive, while facing a future of severe disability and premature death.

The new Center's goal is a cure. The 32 researchers at the JDF Center for Islet Cell Transplantation at Harvard, will work collaboratively to discover how to transplant insulin-producing islet cells without the recipients' needing a lifetime of immunosuppressants, which can have even more devastating long-term effects than the disease itself.

Many of these world-renowned researchers had not previously applied their expertise directly to diabetes. "My entire career has been focused on basic developmental biology, until now," says Doug Melton, professor of molecular and cellular biology, Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and one of the Center's lead researchers. "My seven-year-old son, Sam, has diabetes, and I think the new Center provides us with the chance to extensively and collectively study and hopefully find a cure for this chronic and complex disease."

  The Center will follow a business-oriented model to tackle the major obstacles that still block safe, workable islet cell transplants. Researchers, their projects, and the Center will receive annual performance reviews; funding is contingent upon progress achieved towards the Center's goals; and attendance at monthly think-tankstyle meetings is required to identify promising approaches and ensure continued coordination. Collaboration means individual work will be guided by both positive and negative outcomes of others.

"The most interesting and productive science today is multidisciplinary," said Harvard Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin. "The level of detailed knowledge in most fields is now so vast that the next advances will come through intertwining knowledge from diverse fields. This work in Type 1 diabetes is a great example of the opportunities for multidisciplinary science when the broad Harvard medical community collaborates."

Key gaps in diabetes research knowledge were identified last year when a JDF task force mapped out what was known about the disease, the current state of diabetes-related research, and its founders' main goal of a cure in their children's lifetime. Center scientists will focus on major strategies to close knowledge gaps in four high-priority areas identified in the JDF maps, specifically: islet transplantation, tolerance induction, autoimmunity, and expansion of islet cell supply.

To cure Type 1 diabetes via islet cell transplantation, researchers have to figure out how to conquer two different types of immune problems: autoimmunity and tolerance. They must turn off the autoimmune response that destroyed the patient's original islet cells so that the new ones are not also attacked.

They also have to create tolerance to the new cells, which may be destroyed by a different part of the immune system, just like a transplanted organ. Then, they have to find a plentiful source of replacement islet cells, from tissue culture, animals, or genetic manipulation.

Most of the Center's 32 researchers are Harvard faculty at the University, School of Medicine, School of Public Health, and Harvard-affiliated Boston medical institutions, such as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, DanaFarber Cancer Institute, Joslin Diabetes Center, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Additional expertise was recruited from Charlestown, Mass.based Diacrin Inc., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Minnesota.

Scientists are optimistic about the progress possible with this mission-oriented Center, but they remain cautious about building-up false hope in patients. "Diabetes presents a set of problems that are large and complex," says Center director Hugh Auchincloss, Jr., associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and transplant surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But, huge progress has been made in the last five years, and there's every reason to believe that the rate of progress will continue and accelerate."

Because other diseases share some of these underlying problems, advances toward a cure for diabetes may also help people with arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

For Additional Information

Posted 12 September 1998

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