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$3.3 Million Grant Funds Collaborative Diabetes Research

Alberto Pugliese, M.D.
“We’re connecting the dots in real time with a remarkably high level of collaboration. We are speeding up science," stated DRI's Alberto Pugliese, M.D.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has awarded a $3.3 million grant, to be shared by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Diabetes Research Institute (DRI), the University of Florida, and additional institutions worldwide, as part of a collaborative global effort to help discover the causes of type 1 diabetes (T1D) and find a cure. The announcement was made by Alberto Pugliese, M.D., professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology and head of the DRI’s Immunogenetics Program, during a live webinar.

The George S. Eisenbarth nPOD Award for Team Science is named, in part, for the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD), a program established by JDRF in 2007 that supports the collection and characterization of pancreatic tissues from T1D organ donors. These tissues are then made available to investigators.

The program’s creation grew from the insight of T1D researchers, led by the late George Eisenbarth, M.D., with the understanding that while animal models for T1D could be useful, they differ from the human disease in many key aspects. The JDRF nPOD is led by Drs. Pugliese and Mark Atkinson (University of Florida). 

Prior to the creation of nPOD, access to human pancreases for research was extremely challenging and obtaining T1D-diseased pancreatic tissue and other disease-relevant tissues was even more uncommon. That changed when Eisenbarth, for whom the Helmsley Charitable Trust award was named and who was a mentor to Dr. Pugliese, suggested the formation of nPOD and provided initial data in support of the feasibility of such an effort. Today, thanks to outreach and education in the organ donation community, nPOD has collected more than 100 T1D donated pancreases.

“Rather than competing against one another for academic prominence, nPOD is bringing together a community of researchers to conduct the best possible science,” said Dr. Pugliese. “We’re connecting the dots in real time with a remarkably high level of collaboration. We are speeding up science.”

The new funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust will enable support for and expand collaborative efforts among nPOD investigators, who are already engaged in more than 140 research projects. Collaborative working groups are also being formed to accelerate the pace of discovery and promote integrated studies.The Helmsley grant will specifically support several new multidisciplinary working groups focusing on critical areas of T1D research and fund the creation of early-stage pilot research projects that leverage nPOD’s human tissue samples.

The award will also expand infrastructure and staffing resources to enhance bio-sample availability and scientific collaboration among nPOD investigators. Oftentimes, medical studies in T1D are confidential and rarely shared among peers prior to publication of findings. Instead of closely guarding their research, nPOD’s participating scientists regularly share samples, data, findings and ideas in real time.

There are many studies that are advancing researchers’ understanding of T1D that have recently been published in peer-reviewed journals. For example, nPOD investigators have identified key changes in the pancreas that occur as a result of T1D and pinpointed specific molecules that may be targeted by drugs in the future. 

nPOD investigators are elucidating how the immune system destroys the insulin producing cells and to what extent these cells may replicate. They are also uncovering mechanisms that lead to severe dysfunction of insulin-producing cells, which now appears to be a critical component of T1D that contributes to the development of clinical symptoms. Researchers hope to target this important disease mechanism in clinical trials. 

Ultimately, nPOD is poised to address key questions about the causes of T1D that are unique to patients with the disease, like what role do viral infections play in disease onset. Questions like these cannot be answered solely by studying experimental disease models. 

The cooperation among investigators ensures that the pancreases of the patients are studied with the most sophisticated methodologies and comprehensive study designs, which maximizes the potential for meaningful discoveries.

Source: Diabetes Research Institute and University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

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