Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine are planning to produce an atlas of human cells present in the pancreas. Using a new $3.3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the researchers plan to analyze tissue samples from the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD), which is funded by JDRF.
The team will use technology from the Center for Epigenomics to conduct the research. Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., director of the University of Florida Diabetes Institute and executive director of nPOD, says that the main reason the department received their grant is due to JDRF nPOD. “We need to understand the immune system in development,” says Dr. Atkinson.
This research would help scientists reconstruct cell signaling networks in the pancreas so they can determine what begins the course of action that eventually causes the destruction of insulin-producing cells in the organ. Scientists have cured diabetes in mice before, and have a solid understanding of how T1D develops in mice. But there are enormous differences between the disease in mice and in humans. And unfortunately, the human pancreas is very difficult to study. It cannot be imaged in a living person, or safely biopsied from them.
That’s why having a map of control donor tissues—people without T1D—would provide key information for further studies investigating immune cell infiltration. From there, mapping the cellular changes that occur in the pancreas pre-T1D would help scientists figure out whether the whole organ, or only beta cells in particular, show signs of the disease prior to diagnosis. “If we are able to identify additional biomarkers that accurately predict T1D prior to the development of autoimmunity, we would then be able to examine pancreases in the very early stages of the disease prior to the development of autoantibodies,” says Amanda Posgai, Ph.D., a medical writer at the UF Diabetes Institute.
The maps’ 3D data might help determine cell-cell contacts and networks. And it could help researchers locate markers for signaling pathways and normal cell death, or figure out whether a person with a smaller pancreas is at an increased risk for T1D. But it will be part of the larger NIH project, The Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP), which seeks to study the functional interactions of single cells within tissues across multiple organs and internal systems.
By Joe Levit