Skip to main content

Making More, Better Quality Beta Cells to Treat Type 1 Diabetes

Published: 2/19/16
12 readers recommend

By Christie Auyeung

Last summer, the Diabetes Research Connection (DRC) officially launched a novel crowdfunding platform that directly connects donors with early-career scientists, enabling them to perform peer-reviewed, innovative research in type 1 diabetes. DRC is dedicated to supporting the exciting ideas of younger scientists, who often have difficulties securing funding.

So far, the DRC has successfully funded six projects with grants of up to $50,000 each. We recently spoke with Dr. Sangeeta Dhawan of the UCLA School of Medicine, whose research focuses on making a higher quantity and better quality of insulin producing cells with cell regeneration. Dr. Dhawan’s project is currently open for funding until March 1, 2016.  More information on Dhawan’s research and other projects are available on the DRC website.  

Our Interview with Dr. Sangeeta Dhawan

Q: Could you tell us about the project you’re working on and how it’s going?

Dr. Dhawan: One key idea of my lab is to find sources of new beta cells, whether it’s endogenous (formed from the body’s own resources) or exogenous (such as donated islet or stem cells). The other issue I’m looking at is how to improve the function of these newly derived beta cells. You can make new beta cells, but they may not necessarily be glucose responsive. The idea is to balance quantity with quality. When you expand beta cells using replication, they tend to lose function. The key question is how to make the cells divide rapidly and but also ensuring that they function. We’ve identified a molecular switch that regulates the transition from fast duplicating, non-functional cells to slow duplicating and functional cells. Our strategy is to take adult donor cells, which typically don’t divide, and push them to divide. Then, we turn off the molecular switch once we have sufficient quantity, which induces the pathway that leads to proper beta cell function.

Q: What is most exciting to you about your research?

Dr. Dhawan: We are trying to make functional beta cells: beta cells that can actually sense changes in blood sugar and function accordingly. You can make beta cells, but they won’t necessarily be functional. You want cells that will actually work and you want them in enough numbers. Our research addresses both of these aspects: it suggests we can generate enough number of cells and also make them function appropriately. Additionally, we are working on many other signals required for the formation of beta cells in early development, which will give us more clues as to how they actually form. Also, the identity of cells is very fluid if you push them hard enough, which is another aspect my lab is addressing at the moment.

Q: Is there anything about your work that people don’t understand?

Dr. Dhawan: I want to emphasize that most approaches that push cells into making more numbers tend to typically generate cells that may not necessarily be functional. But we are trying to figure out a way to not only expand the number of these cells but also make sure that they will work. To treat diabetes, you have to make sure the cells to be transplanted can sense changes in blood sugar and behave like your own beta cells would. And that’s why our research is so important.

Interested in getting involved? Help fund Dr. Dhawan’s innovative research through the DRC platform.  

Photo Credit: Diabetes Research Connection

Share this article