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Expert’s Corner: Michael Brehm on precision medicine in type 1 diabetes

Michael Brehm, PhD, and colleagues at UMass Medical School are working to bring precision medicine to patients with type 1 diabetes, developing a model system that allows scientists to better understand the autoimmune disease by using the immune system of laboratory mice as the Petri dish.

“We are at the edge of a very exciting time in using these model systems,” explained Dr. Brehm, the Robert and Sandra Glass Term Chair in Diabetes and associate professor of molecular medicine. “We are taking cells from people with diabetes and introducing these cells into the mouse model and, for the first time, we can study how a human immune system from a diabetic patient is interacting with a diabetic individual’s own pancreatic beta cells—those cells that are making insulin and releasing the insulin that controls blood glucose levels.”

In type 1 diabetes, a person’s own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without the ability to produce insulin, type 1 diabetics cannot regulate blood sugar and must rely on insulin therapy. There is no cure for the autoimmune disease, which affects about 1.25 million Americans.

Brehm, who began his career at UMMS more than 20 years ago as a postdoctoral fellow, said he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes while he was earning his PhD at the Penn State College of Medicine.

“I had to learn how to manage the disease state of type 1 diabetes, while learning how to become a scientist in graduate school,” he said. “It was a very interesting time and I learned a lot about both biology and autoimmune disease.”

The humanized mice developed by Brehm and colleagues are allowing scientists to see what’s happening as the disease progresses.

“Ultimately we would love to see these models transformed into a personalized medicine approach,” said Brehm.

Learn more in this Expert’s Corner video.