Our Strategy to Prevent and Cure Type 1 Diabetes (T1D)

Our ultimate goal is a cure for the millions of children and adults currently living with T1D.  First, we must fundamentally understand the root causes of the disease.  Diabetes was cured in mice in the 1970’s, however it did not translate to humans.  UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence (DCOE) co-director Dale Greiner developed “humanized” mice, in collaboration with The Jackson Laboratory.  These living test tubes allow us to study human tissue in a human immune setting.  We have also developed unique systems to isolate and study individual human islets from donors who had T1D.  

  

What is type 1 diabetes?  

Individuals with T1D have developed an immune response against their own insulin producing cells (beta cells), which reside in the pancreas.  That immune process, once triggered, takes months or even years to kill the beta cells.  Once sufficient beta cells have been destroyed, the individual is completely dependent upon injected insulin for the rest of their lives in order to survive. 

Scientific hurdles when researching a cure for T1D

It is extremely difficult to study the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas of humans where the disease process is occurring.  It is dangerous to biopsy the human pancreas, and rodent models do not replicate human T1D.  The human disease is different than in experimental animals.

The Unique UMass Approach: Our scientists and collaborators have...

Developed a "humanized" mouse model to study human cells and tissues 

Human cells and tissues donated from individuals with T1D are transplanted into our unique mice to observe how that person's beta cells interact with their own immune cells in a "humanized" immune system.  Replicating the human disease provides a better understanding of how human immune cells interact with human insulin-producing beta cells.  That knowledge will allow us to test preventative strategies and therapies.

Isolated and characterized the immune cells that are attacking and killing human beta cells

Our unique methods of isolating and studying individual human islets from donors who had T1D provides a snapshot of how the cells of a specific person were interacting at the site of the autoimmunity at various stages of the disease process.  Examining a specifically diseased human islet, with the immune cells still intact, allows us to investigate the interaction between those human immune cells and beta cells.  Identifying immune cell targets and beta cell response will show how the beta cells are dying, and thereby help us to understand the autoimmune attack.  

Perfected techniques for taking human pancreas tissue from deceased donors and isolating both the beta cells and immune cells for further study

Fostered trusting relationships with families afflicted with T1D who donate cells and tissue which are then studied as described above.

Collaboration

Partnering with world-class stem cell biologists (both within UMass as well as at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute) to manufacture human cells needed to study the process in our humanized mice, including:

  • Beta-like cells to make and secrete insulin
  • Immune cells that attack beta cells
  • Thymic epithelial cells which “educate” immune cells what they should and should not attack