Connecting For A Cure

By Deborah Vietor

The Diabetes Research Connection (DRC) will hold its second annual Dance for Diabetes on Saturday, Sept. 7, which promises to be even more spectacular than last year’s event.

“This is not your typical non-profit fundraiser,” says Sherry Ahern, Event Chair and mother of a son with type 1 diabetes, (T1D).

“Virtually everyone who attended last year’s DRC gala said it was the best one they had ever attended. This will be a fantastic, fun party with great music, fine food and drink, and a silent auction with exciting experiences that everyone will enjoy.” Ahern said.

Gourmet food will be provided by prominent Del Mar restaurants, including Pacifica Del Mar, Il Fornaio, Sbicca, Le Rendezvous and other area eateries. Exceptional live music will be provided by Encore Event Entertainment. Among the highlights are a silent auction, with prizes including an oceanfront condo in Maui with airfare for 2; a signed jersey and helmet by Chargers Quarterback Philip Rivers; 2 VIP member passes to the San Diego International Film Festival; a year of Del Mar Spa 360 treatments; a bay sail on a beautiful 41’ boat with a gourmet lunch; as well as many other choice items.

Funds raised benefit the mission of DRC, a Del Mar based charity with a national reach that funds new, peer-reviewed T1D research at universities and institutions across the country. Donors choose which research project(s) to support. All donations designated for a project go directly to the scientist’s lab. DRC was established in 2012 as a nonprofit by committed proponents of diabetes research, including 3UCSD faculty members: Dr. Alberto Hayek, C.C. King, and Nigel Calcutt; along with David Winkler, who has had T1D since age 6.

Pediatric Endocrinologist, Alberto Hayek is President of DRC. He is a world-renowned T1D researcher and expert in the disease. During his 40 plus years of medical practice, Dr. Hayek was dedicated to caring for children with diabetes and their families.

Dr. Hayek asked each child for whom he provided care, “If you could have only one thing in the world, what would it be?” Their answer was always the same, “I want a cure!” After years of receiving the same answer, he switched to research, to find a cure for this more severe form of diabetes which requires vigilant blood glucose monitoring and the injection of insulin.

Dr. Hayek’s lab was the first to enable replication of specialized beta cells in the pancreas. These critical beta cells measure blood glucose and produce insulin to keep blood sugars in the normal range. Loss of these insulin producing beta cells causes T1D.

Dr. Hayek was the first to cause pancreatic beta cells to multiply. “These replicating beta cells, grown in the lab, began to lose the ability to make insulin. When we reassembled them, insulin production resumed. The methods we developed have been used to make insulin producing beta cells from stem cells,” according to Dr. Hayek.

We spoke with Dr. Hayek recently about his work.

 

L’CHAIM MAGAZINE: What has recently transpired in the field of T1D research?

  1. ALBERTO HAYEK: Peter Thompson, Ph.D. one of DRC’s grantees at UCSF, published a groundbreaking article in Cell Metabolism in February 2019. He showed what causes the premature death of the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas of mice with T1D. These malfunctioning beta cells then destroy other insulin producing beta cells, thus causing the disease. The results of his research could determine a new pathway to a cure. The goal would be to prevent the full onset of the disease by identifying drugs that could eliminate the dying beta cells, that is those which cause a cascade of more beta cells dying, resulting in the onset of T1D. Based on these findings, Dr. Thompson received follow-on funding from the Hillblom Foundation to continue his research for 3 years.

 

L’CHAIM: What is it about DRC that is unique?

AH: All of the grants submitted by early-career scientists are reviewed by our 80+ Scientific Review Committee to ensure the ideas are viable, innovative, and have a high probability of success. The best evidence of good science is through publication of experimental results. Half of DRC fully funded projects have resulted in publications in reputable journals. DRC enables young investigators to then apply to the NIH, JDRF and other foundations for considerably larger grants to continue their research. We kickstart the novel research by feeding the front end of the T1D pipeline.

 

L’CHAIM: Do you believe that one day there will be a cure for T1D?

AH: After 30 years of research, I believe there will be a cure. Tremendous advances have been made in medical discoveries within the past 10 years in the areas of molecular biology, cellular biology and genomic research. Technology has increased the scope and breadth of possible research to increase the probability of finding a cure sooner rather than later. For example, genes can be manipulated in ways previously unimagined.

 

L’CHAIM: What do you believe is the most important thing you can offer people with T1D?

AH: We offer hope for a cure and prevention of T1D. At least three DRC researchers have procured subsequent funding in excess of $1 million. We support some of the best new research ideas from nationally accredited universities and research institutes, across the U.S.

In addition to Dr. Thompson’s fine work, there is the exciting research by Joseph Lancman, Ph.D. being conducted in Dr. Duc Dong’s lab at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. They are developing a novel approach for replacing destroyed pancreatic beta cells. Their research involves using patient’s own modified skin, muscle, or fat cells and transforming them into functioning beta cells. Importantly, they have overcome the hurdle of making beta-cell precursors from these cells. Dr. Lancman is confident his lab will further advance their technology to create a vast, new and practical source of replacement of beta-cells to ultimately cure T1D. This line of experiments has received $1.4 million in additional funding from the NIH and others, following DRC’s early support.

Yo Suzuki, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in La Jolla. He has studied bacteria and other small life forms for 25 years, wanting to contribute to making the world a better place.

Along with John Glass, I encouraged Suzuki to work on T1D a few years ago and he has contributed to the most current research.

 

JCVI is focused on developing a bacteria to function like a beta cell in the form of a microbiological pump. This research is a significant step in the introduction of synthetic biology to potentially deliver insulin in response to blood glucose, without needles or systems to continuously monitor blood glucose levels. Initial DRC funding caused JCVI’s investigators to secure over $1 million in collaboration with researchers from UCSD, Stanford University and the U. of Michigan.

Type 1 diabetes is a leading cause of blindness; heart, kidney and neurological diseases, amputations and death. Still 1 in 17 type 1 diabetics dies of low blood sugar. It is unlike type 2 diabetes which can often be treated with exercise, dietary changes and weight loss.

Type 1 diabetes is one of the most underfunded diseases today. As 1.25 million Americans live with it, including 200,000 children. Approximately 40,000 new patients are diagnosed yearly. Through contributions to organizations like DRC, much can be done to help prevent, and find a cure for type 1 diabetes.

 

The Diabetes Research Connection’s Dance for Diabetes will be held Saturday, Sept. 7, 6-11 p.m. at the Del Mar Plaza sunset deck. Tickets are $200, and include valet parking, live entertainment, food and an open bar provided by Young’s Market. To learn more, or to purchase tickets, visit diabetesresearchconnection.org/dancefordiabetes or call (844) 484-3372.

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