University of Florida announces formation of UF Diabetes Institute

October 7, 2014

GAINESVILLE, Florida ---The University of Florida announced today the formation of the UF Diabetes Institute, a collaboration of dozens of researchers campuswide all focused on forging advances in treatment for a disease that afflicts an estimated 29.1 million Americans and 1 in 10 Floridians.

The news comes as UF’s long track record in diabetes research was further bolstered this month by more than $10 million in new grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“This comprehensive approach to diabetes prevention and care fits well into our strategic plan for bringing people together across disciplines to make advances in education, research and patient care,” said Dr. David S. Guzick, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “The new institute will strengthen our ability to care for patients in our hospital and clinics.”

Leaders of the UF Diabetes Institute believe the sum of the resources from across campus and around the state will be greater than its parts.

“There are individual pockets of excellence but they have not been tied together into a common plan or program,” said Mark Atkinson, the institute’s director.

“Having an institute will enable us to bring together tremendous expertise all across campus in all facets of diabetes,” added institute medical director Dr. Desmond Schatz.

The institute will include nearly 100 faculty members from the colleges of Medicine, Engineering, Public Health and Health Professions, Nursing and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS.

Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at UF, said IFAS faculty are already teaching healthy eating and diabetes risk factor programs in extension offices throughout the state.

“We can use this tremendous outreach arm in all 67 counties to help better educate people about this epidemic,” Payne said.

The institute’s adult medical director, Dr. Kenneth Cusi, says Type 2 diabetes is reaching an epidemic level. He believes the institute will better be able to reach patients before they develop the disease.

“We will be able to identify patients at risk for diabetes, prevent its progression and treat diabetes in its early stages to prevent its devastating complications,” Cusi said.

The new institute’s momentum is underlined by recent funding. Four UF researchers received five separate grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“What these grants do is show the growth and positive momentum we’re seeing in the diabetes program at UF,” Atkinson said.

Each of the grants was funded through the Human Islet Research Network, launched by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, to study beta cell function in human tissue. Islets are clusters of cells within the pancreas that include insulin-producing beta cells, which help convert the glucose in food into energy. When beta cells die, insulin levels drop, triggering diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune response causes the body to destroy these cells.

Cherie Stabler, a recent hire in the biomedical engineering department, received a $4.9 million collaborative grant to engineer a microchip that would serve to house islets that produce beta cells.

“The idea is to fabricate a microchip capable of mimicking the native islet. These platforms can then serve as a screening tool to understand drugs that may impair or enhance islet function, as well as to identify conditions that can help islets survive better,” Stabler said.

Her team hopes to use the microchips to improve the current amount of islets available to transplant into patients with diabetes, screen pharmaceuticals for patients with diabetes or create beta cells from stem cells.

Part of UF researchers’ success derives from a proven ability to work with pancreas tissue from organ donors who lived with diabetes, through the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes, or nPOD, a biorepository formed at UF in 2006. Islet beta cells are difficult to study in living patients, so most studies rely upon research samples from nPOD, said Martha Campbell-Thompson, a UF researcher who received one of the grants.

Campbell-Thompson’s $1.6 million grant will be shared with UF’s Clayton Mathews and Ivan Gerling at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. The group will use a microscope fitted with lasers to cut out the tissue containing only the islets. The researchers will then isolate RNA from the islets that still have insulin-producing beta cells and compare it with RNA taken from islets lacking beta cells.

“Even though people can have Type 1 diabetes for several years, we have found through this nPOD resource that beta cells are still present,” Campbell-Thompson said. “Those are the beta cells we’re most interested in, to understand how they survived and any unique genes they might have.”

Campbell-Thompson’s grant dovetails with a grant to Mathews, also with the department of immunology, pathology and laboratory medicine. Mathews is investigating the genetics of beta cell destruction in Type 1 diabetes. His $3.1 million grant questions whether a specific copy of a gene increases a person’s risk of developing diabetes. His team will examine genes they suspect contribute to the disease. Mathews was also awarded a $2.6 million grant as a co-principal investigator with researchers from Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories and Harvard University to discover the earliest points the regulation of gene expression breaks down, leading to stress and death of beta cells. Their grant will also aim to identify early biomarkers of beta cell death and potential targets for therapy.

“Historically, we have had very little information on how the beta cell changes, and why the beta cell gets destroyed,” Mathews said.

While Mathews’s grant will try to determine why beta cells fail, Schatz and his colleagues will be using a $1.4 million grant to explore novel methods to detect the death of beta cells in blood samples.

“We don’t yet have methods to even detect the death of beta cells,” Schatz said. “We know beta cells have died because there is an absence of insulin rather than detecting the beta cells’ death. This has slowed our progress in the prevention and cure of the disease.” Schatz is collaborating with Yuval Dor at Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and Jorge Ferrer at Imperial College, London.

“Diabetes is a public health problem that underlies many other conditions, and addressing the problem requires interdisciplinary teams of researchers conducting studies in everything from nutrition and behavior to immunology and genetics,” said Dr. Michael Good, dean of the College of Medicine, who was instrumental in creating the institute. “Through the institute, these teams will be able to come up with innovations that impact people’s lives.”