December 2, 2010

Diabetes research effort gets major boost

Featured Image

From left, Jean-Philippe Cartailler, Ph.D., Mark Magnuson, M.D., Alvin Powers, M.D., and Christopher Wright, D.Phil., are among several scientists at Vanderbilt who are contributing to an international effort to develop cell-based therapies for diabetes. (photo by Joe Howell)

Diabetes research effort gets major boost

A Vanderbilt University-led effort to develop cell-based therapies for diabetes has received a major renewal and expansion of federal funding to continue its work for the next five years.

The Beta Cell Biology Consortium (BCBC) includes 46 research groups at 27 institutions around the world. The consortium's coordinating center and three of the research groups are based at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

During the past five years, the coordinating center has received more than $40 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including $7.8 million in federal stimulus funds, most of which was dispersed to consortia members.

In the current fiscal year, it will receive nearly $9 million, with another $4.8 million going to three Vanderbilt-based research projects led by Mark Magnuson, M.D., Alvin Powers, M.D., and Christopher Wright, D.Phil.

“The progress over the last five years has been really astonishing,” said Magnuson, director of the coordinating center and of the Vanderbilt Center for Stem Cell Biology. In another five years, “we're hoping to be able to make fully functional human beta cells in the laboratory.”

Nearly 25 million Americans are affected by diabetes. That number is expected to grow substantially each year. The economic burden of the disease — including health costs, disability and lost productivity — exceeds $200 billion a year by some estimates.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterized by destruction or dysfunction of the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas.

That's why finding new ways to grow and regenerate functioning beta cells is so important.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the NIH, has invested heavily in the consortium since it was established in 2001.

“Vanderbilt's prominence in the BCBC reflects the fact that we are one of the leaders in world-wide efforts to understand how the beta cell forms and works,” said Powers, director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center and the Joe. C. Davis Professor of Biomedical Sciences.

“Thirteen Vanderbilt laboratories are working in this area.”

“Team science” is another important aspect of the consortium and its coordinating center, added Magnuson, the Earl W. Sutherland Jr. Professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics.

Investigators share their latest discoveries with each other through twice-a-year meetings and, the consortium's website, which was built and is maintained by associate center director Jean-Philippe Cartailler, Ph.D., and his informatics team.

“All of these activities stimulate interest, cooperation and scientific collaborations that, in the end, accelerate progress,” Magnuson said.

The three Vanderbilt-led research projects target different areas of beta cell biology.

Magnuson and Guoqiang Gu, Ph.D., associate professor of Cell & Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt, are collaborating with researchers from three other U.S. universities to understand how genes control the development of the hormone-secreting cells of the pancreas, including the beta cells.

Powers and Roland Stein, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics at Vanderbilt, are collaborating with researchers from the United States and Switzerland to compare molecular mechanisms underlying beta cell proliferation and regeneration in the mouse and human.

Wright, director of the Vanderbilt Program in Developmental Biology and the Molecular Diabetes Research Professor of Cell & Developmental Biology, is collaborating with Magnuson and researchers from Switzerland, Sweden and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to identify the stimuli and culture conditions that are necessary to produce mature beta cells in the laboratory.

In a fourth project, Maureen Gannon, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt, is working with University of Pennsylvania researchers to understand the genetic and functional interactions of two transcription factors critical for formation of pancreatic endocrine precursors.

The diversity of these projects attests to the difficulty of the task, Magnuson said. Even when researchers succeed in creating functional beta cells in culture, additional research will need to be undertaken to prove they are safe and effective to use in humans.

But by breaking the challenge into manageable pieces, and by applying new technologies, “these hurdles are slowly being overcome,” he added.