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New Center to Research Stem Cell Cures for Type 1 Diabetes

By Kelly Close, Ursula Biba, Martin Kurian, Rhea Teng, and Eliza Skoler

A collaboration between JDRF, Stanford, and UCSF aims to cure type 1 diabetes through understanding of stem cells and the immune system

JDRF just announced a new partnership with Stanford and the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to create the JDRF Northern California Center of Excellence. The goal of the Center is to research and develop cures for type 1 diabetes that use stem cells to generate insulin-producing cells. Stem cells are unique cells that have the potential to (i) renew themselves for long periods of time; and (ii) develop into many different types of cells in the human body – like the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas! While pancreatic transplantations are currently being studied, the shortage of available pancreas donors makes stem cells a promising alternative. 

More specifically, this partnership aims to develop a stem cell-based cure for type 1 diabetes that does not require suppression of the immune system, which is traditionally achieved by taking medications for life. Sometimes, activity within the immune system must be suppressed so that it does not fight against a potentially helpful, but foreign group of cells (like a new kidney after a kidney transplant, or new stem cells).

This is important because the immune system is the cellular machinery inside our bodies that allows us to fight infections and disease. When the immune system is weakened, it can no longer protect against infections as well, and doctors must work to maintain the correct balance of medications for their patients. Because these drugs must be taken for life, immunosuppression also carries a significant financial burden.

The Center will use the Stanford model for kidney transplantation without immunosuppression and the UCSF method for making insulin-producing cells out of stem cells. Together, these inventive technologies can hopefully help develop stem cell cures for type 1 diabetes that do not require long-term immunosuppression.

Stanford’s transplantation technique uses a combination of targeted irradiation and infusion of specific blood system stem cells (hematopoietic stem cells) from the organ donor. This first weakens the recipient’s immune system, allowing the donor stem cells to better integrate. Then, the organ donor stem cells can develop into immune cells that mix with the recipient’s own immune system, so that there is no need for immunosuppressive drugs.

As such a high-impact nonprofit, JDRF’s role is to support the highly collaborative research process. The Center will be run by well-known leaders including Dr. Matthias Hebrok (UCSF), Dr. Seung Kim (Stanford), Dr. Aaron Kowalski (JDRF President and CEO), Dr. Andrew Rakeman (JDRF AVP of Research), and Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone (UCSF). JDRF is currently leading funding efforts for the Center and has committed to funding the first five years of operation. Wow!

Many of the lead scientists have received JDRF grants that helped make type 1 diabetes research their career focus; it goes without saying that the leadership of Dr. Aaron Kowalski at JDRF was absolutely key to putting this new Center in place, as was the support of many families committed to making JDRF successful.

We are so grateful to see this inventive collaboration being driven forward; thank you to JDRF for creating the model. We are hopeful for progress on cures for type 1 diabetes.

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