Excellence in one place

Excellence  in one place

UF announces formation of UF Diabetes Institute

By Morgan Sherburne

Diabetes afflicts an estimated 29.1 million Americans and 1 in 10 Floridians, and UF researchers have long been dedicated to better understanding this disease.

To further these efforts, in October, UF announced 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 29.1 million Americans and
1 in 10 Floridians.

The news came as UF’s long track record in diabetes research was further bolstered 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 David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., 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, Ph.D., 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 Desmond Schatz, M.D.

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

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.

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, Ph.D., 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.

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.

Martha Campbell-Thompson, D.V.M., Ph.D., Clayton Mathews, Ph.D., and Ivan Gerling, Ph.D., at the University of Tennessee, will use their $1.6 million grant to isolate RNA from islets that still have insulin-producing beta cells and compare it with RNA taken from islets lacking beta cells.

This grant dovetails with another grant to Mathews, who is investigating the genetics of beta cell destruction in Type 1 diabetes.

While Mathews’ 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.

“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 Michael Good, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine.
“Through the institute, these teams will be able to come up with innovations that impact people’s lives.”