JDRF, the type 1 diabetes charityStoriesResearch progress: how this JDRF scientist is kick-starting sleeping beta cells

Research progress: how this JDRF scientist is kick-starting sleeping beta cells

Author: Conor's story | Posted: 01 June 2020

Professor Gregory Ku, who works on beta cell regeneration
Professor Gregory Ku, who works on beta cell regeneration, is encouraging dormant cells to divide and grow once more

Our Research Communications Manager, Conor McKeever, takes a look at US-based researcher Professor Gregory Ku, whose work on ‘waking up’ dormant beta cells could bring us closer to curing type 1 diabetes.

At JDRF, we have an ambitious goal – to cure type 1 diabetes by restoring the body’s ability to produce its own insulin.

One way to do this is to replace the lost insulin-producing cells with cells grown in a lab.

But what if we could get people with type 1 to regrow their own cells? That’s the ultimate aim of our world-leading beta cell regeneration research programme.

Researchers working on this programme are looking for ways to promote the survival of existing beta cells, and to encourage them to multiply and generate new beta cells.

Sleeping cells

Now, you may be thinking – “Existing cells? Haven’t people with type 1 have already lost their beta cells?”

Well, although we once thought that people with type 1 lost all of their beta cells, we now know that for some people, a small number of cells remain dormant, sometimes even years after diagnosis.

So, in the short term, if we can protect some of these beta cells in people newly diagnosed with type 1, we may be able to extend the ‘honeymoon period’ (the time immediately after diagnosis, when the pancreas is still producing insulin) by years or even decades.

And, long-term, if we can get some of these cells to multiply, then we could be on the way to curing type 1 altogether.

Flick the switch

That’s why we’re funding Professor Gregory Ku at the University of California, San Francisco. He is an expert on beta cells – particularly improving their function, survival and proliferation.

Professor Ku is leading a team aiming to kick-start these dormant beta cells, by encouraging them to divide and grow once more.

In the past, this has been challenging, as beta cells don’t naturally divide and grow very quickly.

However, his team has found a mechanism that stimulates beta cell growth and insulin production in mice.

And it turns out that the ‘switch’ that turns this mechanism on is also found in humans – so the researchers are now aiming to make a drug that could one day be used to trigger beta cell growth in people with type 1.

If successful, this research could bring us another step closer to curing type 1 diabetes.

You can learn more about our regeneration research here.

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