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Infectious Disease Expert Jennifer Wang Receives Funding to Identify Immune Responses and Investigate How Viruses Trigger Type 1 Diabetes

By: Sandra Gray - UMass Chan Medical School Communications
Jennifer Wang, MD (left) and postdoc Natasha Qaisar seek pathways to prevent type 1 diabetes

Viral infections have long been linked to the development of type 1 diabetes, but how the body’s immune responses to viruses leads to damage of the insulin-producing beta cells in the human pancreas remains a mystery. 

UMass Chan Medical School infectious disease and immunology expert Jennifer Wang, MD, hopes to move closer to better understanding type 1 diabetes with a new five-year, $2.96 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her lab will use a new type 1 diabetes animal model with rich potential to identify autoimmune and inflammatory pathways which could be stopped in their tracks to prevent the disease from developing.

“With this new grant we will look at how viruses can trigger type 1 diabetes - a similar theme but different approach to my existing grant which studies the effects of coxsackie virus in human diabetes models. Our ultimate goal is to use information from these studies to design preventive therapies for human type 1 diabetes,” said Dr. Wang, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology. “We hope that we can define pathways which could be translated over to human studies to prevent it, blocking specific pathways to prevent damage.”

The grant stems from research published in Diabetes during which they used the CRISPR gene editing technique to generate a knockout animal model lacking a key interferon receptor. Using this model, they identified how an innate immune process contributes to diabetes.

While these preliminary studies have shown that interferon contributes to diabetes, it is not the only factor. With the new grant, the Wang lab will investigate inflammatory pathways because viruses can trigger inflammation that damages the pancreas and therapeutics that could target inflammation are available. They're also hoping to identify potential early markers for impending autoimmune diabetes.

“We will use this model to better understand mechanisms on the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes,” said Wang. “We are focusing on early events leading to autoimmune responses to viruses which could be clinically significant for possible preventive therapies.”

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