Diabetes research is on the cusp of new advances in treatment options and in understanding the underlying causes of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Among those are potential treatments using stem cells to regenerate a patient’s ability to produce insulin, as well as upcoming clinical trials of a vaccine that potentially could prevent type 1 diabetes.
These advances form the core of a scientific symposium being held at the UCSF Parnassus Heights campus on Sept. 24, with speakers from UCSF, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, Columbia University School of Medicine and San Raffaele Hospital and Scientific Institute, in Italy.
The symposium marks the 10th anniversary of the UCSF Diabetes Center, which unites leading research, education and patient care under one roof to expedite the translation of scientific research into improved therapies.
Diabetes affects an estimated 171 million people – a number that is expected to double by the year 2030, according to the World Health Organization.
UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, launched the symposium alongside Diabetes Center Director Matthias Hebrok, PhD, and UCSF Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jeffrey Bluestone, PhD, the A.W. and Mary Margaret Distinguished Professor in Metabolism and Endocrinology. Bluestone’s scientific leadership as the center’s director over the last decade has placed UCSF at the forefront in the field.
“When I came here, there was a real interest in taking research, education and clinical care to the next level,” said Bluestone, one of the world’s leading experts on why the body’s immune system decides to tolerate its own tissue and reject or accept transplanted tissue. “We’ve had a lot of successes in these areas.”
Over the decade, the center began multiple clinical trials to test new therapies for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, including drugs to alter or slow the progression of type 1 diabetes by changing how the immune system recognizes and destroys these insulin-producing cells.
The center also started one of the first islet transplant programs in the country to replace the insulin-producing cells, has done fundamental research in converting stem cells into active islet cells and developed one of the nation’s most successful pediatric diabetes clinical research efforts. It also maintained a renowned diabetes patient education center.
In June, the university tapped Hebrok, the UCSF Hurlbut-Johnson Distinguished Professor in Diabetes Research, to lead the center into the next decade. Hebrok is considered a world expert in pancreatic development. His research focuses on how undifferentiated epithelial cells develop into functional insulin-producing beta-cells.
Looking forward, advances highlighted at the symposium have the potential to transform diabetes treatment, as will approaches such as using mobile technology to reach patients around the world with the latest information on their care.
“Every day, I think there are exciting opportunities in diabetes research,” Bluestone said. “Being able to recreate an insulin-producing cell in a petri dish that can be given to people and correct the disease would be incredibly exciting. The ability to identify a two-year-old child who will get diabetes three years in the future, before they get it, and be able to treat them with a drug for a short period of time and have a long-lasting impact so they don’t get the disease – that would be exciting.
“But at the end of the day, the most exciting thing would be to be able to go into an office with a parent and a child and tell them we have something we can do that will change the course of the disease for them,” he said.
UCSF’s history as a national leader in diabetes dates to 1949, when the Metabolic Research Unit was established by the California State Legislature for research and training in metabolic and endocrine diseases.
Among the university’s contributions was the 1970s cloning of the human gene that makes insulin, and the production of recombinant insulin. That became the first drug ever produced using biotechnology and made possible today’s unlimited supply of insulin.
UCSF researchers also were the first to link obesity to insulin resistance in the 1960s, causing revolutionary changes in diabetes treatment and prevention, and to demonstrate that elevated blood sugar causes complications, helping to pioneer the intensive glucose control strategies now used worldwide.
Bluestone’s own research into a monoclonal antibody, anti-CD3, also has progressed farther than any other type 1 therapy on the road to drug development.
During the decade, Bluestone founded and led the Immune Tolerance Network, an international collaborative of the foremost authorities on immune tolerance that conducts clinical trials of specialized therapies in solid organ and islet transplant rejection; autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and lupus; and the prevention and treatment of allergies and asthma.
UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. For further information, visit www.ucsf.edu.
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UCSF news release