February 23, 2020
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Beta cells with ‘super powers’ hold potential for improved diabetes care

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Judith Agudo

Creating and protecting durable beta cells could be the key to future treatments and even a cure for diabetes, according to a 2020 winner of one of the American Diabetes Association’s Pathway to Stop Diabetes grants.

Judith Agudo, PhD, assistant professor in the cancer immunology and virology department at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and department of immunology at Harvard Medical School, will use the 5-year, $1.625 million grant to support a project that will use findings from stem cells that display “immune privilege” or the ability to avoid attacks from the body’s immune system to generate beta cells.

“These stem cells are very efficient at escaping from immune attack, and I realized that I had to learn how they do it so I could use those strategies to engineer beta cells,” Agudo told Healio. “The goal is to enable beta cells to acquire those ‘super powers’ so they can survive.”

Currently, attempts to replace beta cells can be hampered by resistance from the body’s immune system, which necessitates immune suppression, according to Agudo, who noted that suppression amplifies infection risk.

“Our goal is to develop strategies to engineer these lab-grown beta cells so they can survive and there is no need for immune suppression,” Agudo said. “In this way, these transplanted beta cells can cloak and survive while the patients’ immune systems are perfectly functional and can fight infections.”

The research process will involve identifying specific aspects of stem cells, particularly genes, that lead to this immune privilege. Agudo and colleagues will use the data to create beta cells that will then be tested in animal models. Agudo said testing in humans will follow, but not for several years.

Genetic researcher Adobe 
Creating and protecting durable beta cells could be the key to future treatments and even a cure for diabetes.
Source: Adobe Stock

Agudo previously studied beta-cell biology and regeneration while getting her PhD in Spain before focusing on immunology at the Immunology Institute at Mount Sinai in New York. Her current work will blend these two focuses of her previous research.

“I have brought together both aspects: beta-cell regeneration and immunology,” Agudo said. “Our goal is to manipulate beta cells so they can get transplanted and survive during immune attack. We even aim to engineer them so we can one day have out of the shelf beta cells that could get transplanted in any patient that requires treatment with insulin.”

Agudo’s interest in this research stems from a desire to improve diabetes care, particularly in a world where insulin injections and glucose management can still be burdensome for patients, she said.

“Our hope is to allow patients to get functional beta cells back, so these exogenous injections are no longer necessary, or at least not as frequently,” Agudo said. “A true cure will happen when patients with diabetes can have long-lasting functional beta cells.” – by Phil Neuffer

For more information:

Judith Agudo, PhD, can be reached at judith_agudo@dfci.harvard.edu; Twitter: @JudithAgudo1.

Disclosure: Agudo reports no relevant financial disclosures.