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U of C teams head national diabetes research project

link to: Chicago JournalIn the three years since she was diagnosed with type I diabetes, 9--year--old Kady Helme has pricked her finger for a blood check over 5,000 times and given herself more than 2,000 insulin shots. After describing a typical day in her life--four blood checks, snacks eaten on a strict schedule, waking up in the night when her blood--sugar level drops--she added, "I will get sicker the older I get."

She kept smiling, though, because top researchers and physicians had just assured her that they were going to do everything in their power to find better diabetes treatments and maybe even a cure--and they'd just received $151.5 million to do it.

Kady was the last speaker at an October press conference held on campus. At the conference, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (JDF) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced two major grants to University of Chicago--headed research teams studying treatments for diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. Both projects will test "tolerogenic" approaches, therapies that selectively disable immune cells which attack transplanted cells or organs while allowing other immune cells to defend against bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.

The JDF has awarded $7.5 million over five years to establish the JDF Center for Islet Transplantation at the University of Chicago/University of Minnesota. The NIAID has launched a seven--year, $144--million initiative--the Collaborative Network for Clinical Research on Immune Tolerance--that will involve nearly 40 research institutions and 70--plus researchers and clinical specialists.

Directing both projects is U of C pathology professor Jeffrey Bluestone, who also chairs the Committee on Immunology and heads the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research.

The JDF Center for Islet Transplantation will tackle a major problem: how to prevent the body from rejecting pancreatic--cell transplants. Beta cells in pancreatic islets (cell clusters) produce insulin, but in patients with type 1 diabetes, those beta cells have been destroyed. Successful transplants of pancreatic islets could cure type I diabetes, but current techniques to protect transplanted islets from rejection suppress the entire immune system, increasing the recipient's risk of infection and cancer.

"This new JDF Center moves us closer to the day when we will be free from daily injections, constant concern about blood--sugar levels, and the dangers of blindness and the other debilitating health effects of type 1 diabetes," said JDF board chair John J. McDonough, who lost a leg to diabetes complications a year ago.

The other new project, the Collaborative Network, will study diabetes as well as other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The network will coordinate human clinical testing of new therapies designed to bring about immune tolerance. Successful and lasting induction of immune tolerance could eradicate autoimmune disease and eliminate the need for permanent immune suppression in transplant patients. The NIAID will supply over $128 million for the network, with $14 million provided by the JDF, and additional support from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. --K.S.

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