Making Insulin-Producing Cells Unrecognizable

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A goal of Elad Sintov, Ph.D., of Harvard University, is to find a way to transplant beta cells without the use of immunosuppressive treatments.

Over the past 20 years, JDRF has driven amazing progress in beta cell transplantation for type 1 diabetes (T1D). As we have seen, in a small subpopulation of people living with T1D, transplantation of beta cells can be, literally, a life-saver. Unfortunately, though, they require long-term immunosuppressive treatments, and most of those beta cells will be gone at two years, rendering these people insulin-dependent again. One avenue to overcome this is to produce the beta cells from stem cells, which have been modified to be immune to a cellular attack. In other words, making insulin-producing beta cells unrecognizable to the immune system. That’s what Elad Sintov, Ph.D., is trying to do, with a JDRF postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.

“The fact that the human immune system has ‘issues’ with one very important cell type in the body, tells us that there is something very unique in beta cells,” says Dr. Sintov. “This is truly intriguing.”

His laboratory, headed by Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D., has developed an effective way to transform stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells, providing a virtually unlimited supply for transplantation. But preventing immune rejection, without immunosuppressive drugs, remains a major challenge. Dr. Sintov plans to develop a platform that will allow him to look at the interactions between beta cells derived from modified stem cells and immune cells and use it as a screening strategy to identify gene modifications that protect against immune attack. Finally, he will make additional genetic modifications to the beta cells so that they are not recognized by the immune system.

“None of it is going to be easy,” says Dr. Sintov. “But thanks to JDRF and its funder, MilliporeSigma, this award will keep me in business for the next three years, with full time devoted to the proposed research.”

MilliporeSigma, the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, is a global leader in the life science industry and is supporting two postdoctoral fellowships at JDRF—one to Dr. Sintov and the other to Shugo Sasaki, M.D., Ph.D., of The University of British Columbia, who is studying beta cell replacement, as well. MilliporeSigma is funding these fellowships as part of its corporate responsibility commitment to accelerating access to better health for people around the world. For more information on MilliporeSigma, go to its website here.

JDRF’s early-career funding enables promising scientists, like Drs. Sintov and Sasaki, to focus their talent, ambition and passion on improving life with T1D. Learn more about the researchers we fund, and learn how you can support their work to prevent, treat and—one day—cure T1D.

By Alexandra Mulvey