Unique Beta Cells Hold Potential For Improved Diabetes Care

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 has won American Diabetes Association’s Pathway to Stop Diabetes grants. Her new theory might hold the potential to improve diabetics care. Agude says that creating and protecting durable beta cells could be the key to future treatments and even a cure for diabetes.

Agudo said:

“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. The goal is to enable beta cells to acquire those ‘super powers’ so they can survive.”

At the moment, the attempts to replace beta cells can be hampered by resistance from the body’s immune system. This necessitates immune suppression and such suppression can amplify infection risk.

About immune suppression, Agudo said:

“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. 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 is expected to start with identifying specific aspects of stem cells, particularly genes that lead to this immune privilege. Agudo and colleagues will be using the data to create beta cells that will be tested in animal models. Agudo has ruled out human tests for now but she has said that they will happen in future.

While getting her PhD in Spain Agudo studied beta-cell biology and regeneration. After that she started working on immunology at the Immunology Institute at Mount Sinai in New York. Her two focuses of her previous research are going to blend in order to shape her current work. She says:

“I have brought together both aspects: beta-cell regeneration and immunology. 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.”