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UMass Medical School joins JDRF Center of Excellence in New England to advance type 1 diabetes research

Center will focus on accelerating gene editing approaches for beta cell replacement therapy

By Colleen Locke and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

February 23, 2021

Five UMass Medical School scientists from the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence are part of the JDRF Center of Excellence in New England that launched Tuesday, Feb. 23. The goal of the cross-institutional collaboration is to create a cell replacement therapy that could treat and potentially cure type 1 diabetes. 

Funded by JDRF and led by Harvard Stem Cell Institute co-director Douglas Melton, PhD, and JDRF scientific staff leader Esther Latres, PhD, assistant vice president of research, the new center comprises leading Massachusetts-based experts, including Michael Brehm, PhD, and Dale L. Greiner, PhD, of UMass Medical School, and Stephan Kissler, PhD, of the Joslin Diabetes Center. The team will closely collaborate with Leonard Shultz, PhD, of The Jackson Laboratory in Maine. Dr. Shultz is also a professor of medicine at UMass Medical School.

“By taking advantage of the advances in stem cell science and genome editing, our team is excited to work collaboratively to solve the problem of immune rejection of beta cells,” said Dr. Melton, the Xander University Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. “We aspire to find cell and gene manipulations that will enable cell transplantation to treat and maybe cure type 1 diabetes.”

David M. Harlan, MD, the William and Doris Krupp Professor of Medicine, professor of medicine and co-director of the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence, said Melton’s work inspired his move to UMass Medical School in 2009 to co-direct research efforts along with Dr. Greiner. Dr. Harlan is one of the five UMass Medical School faculty who are working on three projects for the JDRF Center of Excellence in New England.

Harlan is leading a clinical study with diabetes patients from UMass Memorial Health Care who have agreed to donate samples of their blood. Melton will use that blood to produce stem cell-derived pancreatic beta cells that are modified to protect them from being attacked by immune cells in people with type 1 diabetes. In their laboratories, Dr. Brehm and Greiner will then test the cells to see if they work as intended.

“When Lenny [Shultz] and I were developing the first ‘humanized’ mice in the 1980s, we only dreamed that one day they’d be optimized to where we have them now,” said Greiner, the Dr. Eileen L. Berman and Stanley I. Berman Foundation Chair in Biomedical Research, professor of molecular medicine and co-director of the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence. “Transplanting stem cell-derived pancreatic cells that have been genetically modified to become ‘invisible’ to the immune system into our humanized mice allows us to understand type 1 diabetes like never before.”

UMass Medical School’s Sally C. Kent, PhD, the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation Term Chair in Diabetes and associate professor of medicine, and René Maehr, PhD, the Glass Charitable Foundation Term Chair in Diabetes and associate professor of molecular medicine, will be examining all of the cells before they are transplanted and after they are removed. This has to be done before the researchers can proceed to clinical trials. It is a team effort.

“As someone who lives with type 1 diabetes, I’m invested both personally and professionally to finding a cure,” said Brehm, the Robert and Sandra Glass Term Chair in Diabetes and associate professor of molecular medicine. “Scientists from five New England institutions are collaborating on this exciting project to bring us one step closer to a potential cure.”

The seed funder of this JDRF initiative is a member of the DCOE Visiting Advocacy Committee, John Cammett.

“I am truly blown away by the research planned at the JDRF Center of Excellence in New England,” Cammett said. “My own desire to find a cure is inspired by my mom living with type 1 diabetes for almost 60 years. We have supported several of the researchers at this JDRF Center of Excellence individually before. But the JDRF Center of Excellence in New England excites me and gives me tremendous optimism because it brings together the brightest minds, along with the entire JDRF research ecosystem, with a laser-sharp focus on developing cures.”

The JDRF Center of Excellence in New England joins two nationally and internationally recognized research partners at the JDRF Centers of Excellence in Northern California and at the University of Michigan.

Related stories on UMassMed News:
Glass Family Fellow in Diabetes Research established at UMMS
Sally Kent named Fuller Foundation Term Chair in Diabetes
Researchers gain insights into cellular processes associated with diabetes
Expert’s Corner: Michael Brehm on precision medicine in type 1 diabetes