UF plays major role in national research initiative to reverse type 1 diabetes

The University of Florida will participate in a $21.8 million research initiative established by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust with the goal of reversing type 1 diabetes.

“Type 1 diabetes is on the rise globally and in particular, we are seeing an alarming rise in the diagnosis of children under the age of 5,” said Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., a professor of pathology and the American Diabetes Association Eminent Scholar for diabetes research at UF’s College of Medicine. “While the disease is usually identified with childhood, it carries a lifelong potential for its diagnosis.”

Atkinson has been chosen to play a leading role in the Helmsley Type 1 Diabetes Research Consortium, a three-year grant program involving 11 institutions, including UF, the University of California-San Francisco, Harvard University and Columbia University. UF researchers will receive almost $4 million from the trust to support innovative research and conduct new clinical trials that could lead to better treatments for type 1 diabetes.

The focus of the program is to advance the understanding of type 1 diabetes and to develop therapeutic solutions until a cure can be found. The Helmsley Trust awarded 28 grants this fall. Four primary projects are investigating new strategies to restore the body’s ability to control blood glucose levels while at the same time preventing the immune system from attacking existing or newly formed beta cells.

Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. It is an autoimmune disease in which the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system, requiring daily insulin replacement and frequent blood sugar checks by patients.

Research at UF will focus on reversing type 1 diabetes long after it has been established. Scientists and physicians will investigate drug therapies developed for other diseases, such as cancer and organ transplantation, which have been shown to reverse disease in mice with diabetes.

Dr. Desmond Schatz, associate chairman of pediatrics at the UF College of Medicine and medical director of the UF Diabetes Center of Excellence and Dr. Michael Haller, assistant professor of endocrinology, will serve as principal investigators in the clinical trials.

With the funding available through the Helmsley consortium, investigators have been able to see an accelerated but still rigorous review process and obtain approval for their human trials much more quickly Atkinson said.

“Unfortunately, too much research in type 1 diabetes remains in the laboratory and does not see much in terms of translation to patients, and even for those that do, much is directed at those with recent onset disease,” explained Atkinson. “Our goal with this funding is to find ways to improve the lives of people who have established type 1 diabetes, with the ultimate goal of unraveling ways to reverse the disease process.”

The Helmsley Trust, established in 1999, is administered by five trustees selected by Mrs. Helmsley as a continuation of the Helmsley’s giving through their lifetimes. The Trust supports a diverse range of organizations with a major focus on health and medical research, in addition to programs in human services, education and conservation.

The Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits. Earlier this year, the Trust announced $136 million in grants to charitable organizations across the United States and abroad.

“This type of funding can be transformational,” said Atkinson. “Without it we couldn’t do a trial like this, at least not now or in the near term future. It dramatically reduces the time it takes to organize ourselves to address some very important questions.”