A recipe for a biological insulin pump

Nina Funa, Ph.D., University of Copenhagen, is seeking the right steps and ingredients to make the best insulin-producing cells

Over the past ten years, JDRF has driven amazing progress in cell-based therapies for type 1 diabetes (T1D). We’ve seen the development of the first protocols to turn immature cells into insulin producers, opening the door to making cell therapies and all their benefits available to many more people with T1D. But we haven’t perfected the recipe yet. As Dr. Funa points out, “Although the last decade has presented remarkable progress in generating cells that resemble close-to-mature insulin-producing cells in a dish, the sequence and dynamic interplay of the cocktail of factors we add to cultivate these cells remains largely unexplored.” As a result, the current protocols are time-consuming and low-yield, and the final products often vary in composition and include unwanted (non-insulin-producing) cell types. Dr. Funa is working to refine the recipe, which will speed and simplify the procedure and make the end product more consistent and usable.

To do this, Dr. Funa is mapping different factors that influence the maturation and multiplication of insulin-producing cells. Earlier this year, she was awarded a JDRF Advanced Postdoctoral Fellowship cofunded by the Danish Diabetes Academy to develop tools to map these signals at the cellular level and in real time. “A more detailed map of the cues that trigger the growth of immature cells into beta-like cells will pave the way to an unlimited source of cells for a biological ‘insulin pump’,” Dr. Funa explains.

She emphasizes the importance of JDRF funding for this type of foundational laboratory research: “it feeds the pipeline for therapies that can benefit people with T1D in the future. With the ongoing efforts in improving protocols, I feel very optimistic about the future of cellular therapies for T1D,” says Dr. Funa.

We share her optimism! It’s one reason that we prioritize funding for early-career scientists. The future of T1D research is bright indeed.

By Monica Harrington