Go Get the (Immune Cell) Regulators!

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Shugo Sasaki, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia, wants to make beta cell replacement therapies that are “immune” to attack.

The shortage of donor beta cells and the need for strong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent immune attack make beta cell replacement available only to people with severe life-threatening unawareness of their low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia. At JDRF, we are taking a new route to beta cell replacement technologies, with the aim to develop an unlimited source of insulin-producing cells without drugs that limit your immune system’s role in fighting off infection.

One avenue, which Shugo Sasaki, M.D., Ph.D., is pursuing with a postdoctoral fellowship from JDRF, is to use gene editing. More specifically, Dr. Sasaki wants to investigate beta cells that have been edited to make a molecule that attracts “good” immune cells, called regulatory T cells, and whether the transplanted beta cells are protected from immune attack.

“If this approach is successful,” says Sasaki, “I believe that, one day, it will lead to a cure for T1D.”

It’s not going to be easy. First, Dr. Sasaki has to use gene editing technology to get this molecule, called CCL22, into stem cells. Then, he has to differentiate the stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells. Third, he has to transplant these cells to find out if they do express CCL22 and attract regulatory cells. And, finally, he has to see if these beta cells are protected from the “bad” cells of the immune system.

Dr. Sasaki has funding from MilliporeSigma for his research, which is “allowing [him] to carry out cutting-edge experiments,” says Sasaki. The life science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, which operates as MilliporeSigma in the U.S. and Canada, is a global leader in the Life Science industry and is funding two postdoctoral fellowships at JDRF—one to Dr. Sasaki and the other to Elad Sintov, Ph.D., of Harvard University, who is also studying beta cell replacement. MilliporeSigma is funding these fellowships as part of its corporate responsibility commitment to accelerating access to better health for people around the world.

Meet more of the scientists, like Dr. Sasaki, who are creating a world without T1D.

By Alexandra Mulvey