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Researcher Spotlight: Carey Zammitti

Date Posted: Wednesday, September 08, 2021

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Type 1 Diabetes Research in The Brehm Lab

Carey Zammitti is a Research Associate in the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence laboratory of Michael Brehm, PhD.  In addition to working hands-on with various type 1 diabetes (T1D) studies, she assists administratively with ordering, project management and financial planning.

Some of the projects she’s currently involved with include testing pig islets in the Brehm Lab’s unique “humanized” mouse models of T1D to study their potential for transplantation as a possible therapeutic treatment.  She’s also working with microscopic encapsulation devices to test their functionality to protect insulin-producing beta cells and islets from being recognized and attacked by immune cells.

“What’s most exciting about the diabetes research we’re doing is that it’s preclinical,” Zammitti said.  “What we’re working on in the lab today could translate to an impactful therapy for millions of people, like Dr. Brehm, who are living with type 1 diabetes.”

In 2021, Carey celebrated her 35th year working at UMass Chan Medical School.  She started in the Pathology Department in 1986 in the viral immunology lab of Raymond Welsh, PhD.  Dr. Welsh studied immune responses to infections, was one of the world’s top experts of natural killer (NK) cells and was a pioneer in the study of cross-reactive T cell responses. 

“I typed that resume on a typewriter,” she said with a smile.  “There was no internet, no email – we didn’t even have computers when I got here.”  At that time there were only two buildings on campus, the hospital and one school building.  She has since watched many buildings go up and the expansion continues today.

It was in the Welsh Lab where Carey first met Dr. Brehm, who arrived as a post-doctoral fellow in 1999.  They worked well together and became friends.  Dr. Brehm transferred to the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence (DCOE) in 2008 to work with DCOE Co-Director Dale Greiner, PhD.  He and Carey remained friends and stayed in touch for ten years until Dr. Welsh retired in 2019.  At that time, she was looking for a new job and the Brehm Lab could use her skill set, so it was a natural fit.

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Carey Zammetti and Michael Brehm, PhD

“Every laboratory has pivotal points that define the future success of a research program, and our group is very lucky that Carey was available to join us at such a critical time,” said Dr. Brehm, Associate Professor of Molecular Medicine and Co-Director of the Humanized Mouse Core Facility at UMass Chan Medical School.  “She provides extensive laboratory experience, leadership and sensibility to our lab environment, and she’s invaluable to our continued scientific accomplishments.”  

Working with Animals

Carey has loved animals since she was a young girl.  In high school she had her mind set on pursuing a career as a veterinarian.  She attended the University of New Hampshire as an Animal Science Major with the intention of becoming a vet.  Family has always been extremely important to Carey. While she was away at school, she missed her family back home in Central Massachusetts.  That was among the reasons why she transferred to Worcester’s Clark University for her final two years.  She also changed her major and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. 

“I’ve always loved science & math,” she said.  Carey graduated third in her high school class.  “I enjoy the creativity of science where you start with a hypothesis, create a plan to answer your questions, execute it and see what data you get.”

She continues to acquire knowledge and new skills.  “Since joining Mike’s lab I’ve learned to perform survival surgeries on our humanized mice,” she said.  “I had never done those before.”

As an animal lover, she was torn at first about working with mice.  Animal research has been instrumental in many major medical advances.  “Millions of lives have been saved or improved based on discoveries made using animal models,” she said.  “I know that what we learn using our animal models could never be accomplished in a petri dish and we always ensure their humane and ethical treatment.”

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) are federally required to oversee the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing.  The UMass Medical School IACUC reviews and approves all animal use and they inspect the animal facilities to ensure all protocols are followed.

Humanized Mice to Study Human Type 1 Diabetes

Scientists first cured diabetes in mice in the 1970’s, however it didn’t work in humans.  In the 1990’s, Dr. Greiner was a pioneer of the humanized mouse model which allows scientists to study human cells and tissues in a human-like immune setting.  Today, the Greiner and Brehm Labs implant human cells and tissue from volunteer donors enrolled in clinical studies.  Their labs observe how a person’s insulin-producing beta cells interact with their own immune cells.  The goal is to finally understand where, how and why the autoimmune process takes place.  Insight into how the disease develops will allow scientists to create and test therapies in these “humanized” animals as a preclinical model before a potential treatment can advance to human trials.

The Brehm Lab is regarded among the world’s top experts at working with humanized mice.  Companies that are developing potential diabetes therapeutics often test their products and ideas in these humanized immune systems. 

One such project that Carey is involved with is transplanting pig islets into our humanized mice and testing it as possible therapy to replace human islets. “Pig islets are the closest to humans,” she said.  “They’re only one amino acid from human beta cells.”  The pig islets are first genetically modified to avoid rejection and to not get recognized and attacked by immune cells.  They’re also modified to prevent viruses from being transferred from the animals to humans.

Another potential treatment that Carey is involved with testing is a microscopic capsule to protect islets and cells from an autoimmune attack.  They’re being designed so the immune system won’t recognize the encapsulation device, however, they’re porous so insulin can be secreted and released.  The goal of this product is to restore insulin production and release it as needed, ideally eliminating the need for an insulin pump.

“I have enjoyed watching Carey take on and master new challenges since joining our lab,” said Dr. Brehm.  “Her successes with us are a testament to her dedication, skill and commitment to excellence.”

About Carey

Carey has been married for 34 years to “my best friend” and they have three sons.  She’s proud that she was able to balance raising children with enjoying a fulfilling career.  “It made me a well-rounded person,” she said.  “I inherited my work ethic from my father who owned his own business and worked every day of his life until he passed at age 85.”  Family is the most important thing to Carey.  “All of my boys are living their best lives!”  Her oldest son is married and recently made her a grandmother for the first time in the spring of 2021.  Her middle son will graduate from UMass Medical School in the class of 2025.  He interned in the Brehm Lab for a couple of summers during college and has traveled to Roatan, Honduras multiple times on medical missions to provide care on the island.  Her youngest son lives and works outside of Boston and is currently earning his Master’s Degree from Bentley University. 

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Carey and her husband love to travel.  They’re both certified scuba divers who dove on the great barrier reef in Australia and all throughout the Caribbean.  She enjoys spending time outside; road biking, running, or working in the yard.  She also goes to the gym regularly.  “You only get one body, so I take care of it,” she said.

Carey has a personal connection to type 1 diabetes, as her grandmother had T1D in the 1920s, shortly after insulin was discovered in 1922 by Banting & Best.  Her grandmother was a recipient of a seeing eye dog trained in California at the Guide Dogs for the Blind.  She had developed glaucoma and lost her vision, among other health complications, due to years of uncontrolled blood sugars.   

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In recent years diabetes management technology has made it much easier for people with T1D to control their blood sugars.  During his 1923 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Frederick Banting said, “Insulin is not a cure for diabetes; it is a treatment.”  It remains to be seen if the cure will be the result of the cutting-edge research taking place in the Brehm Lab, but Carey plans to show up every day with the dream of making that a reality.

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