Could Bacteria in the Body Lead to a Cure for Type 1 Diabetes?

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For decades, researchers have been searching for a cure for type 1 diabetes. They have refined their understanding of its cause and continue to learn more each day. One would think that this would make finding a cure easier, but it’s not that simple. While scientists have developed complex solutions that mimic the body’s ability to produce insulin on its own, these methods are always undermined by the fact that the body’s immune system continues to destroy insulin-producing cells. And often treatment still requires a great deal of input and involvement from patients.

However, John Glass, a synthetic biologist at the J. Craig Venter Institute who is living with type 1 diabetes himself, may have found a promising new idea for a cure – or at least another step in the right direction. By using synthetic biology, he believes he may be able to re-engineering bacteria found deep within the skin to perform similar functions of beta cells, which are involved in the natural production of insulin. The idea stems from a study that re-engineered embryonic kidney cells to mimic pancreatic functions and create a closed loop system where the body could stabilize its own blood sugar and insulin production. This ended up only being a temporary fix because the body still targeted and destroyed these cells much like naturally occurring beta cells.

Glass’ research builds on this concept, but takes a different approach by using bacteria living deep within the skin that the immune system already overlooks. These bacteria were first discovered by Richard Gallo, a dermatologist at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD).  Alberto Hayek, a diabetes researcher and emeritus professor at UCSD, approached Glass about re-engineering these microbes to function like beta cells but still go undetected by the immune system.

The study is in very early stages, but the idea is to harvest a patient’s own bacteria, re-engineer the microbes, and then apply them transdermally through a personalized skin cream. They would be absorbed into the skin and start functioning as beta cells. There are still many obstacles to overcome with this approach, however. For instance, researchers would need to determine how many microbes need to be used and how to regulate the bacteria from producing too much insulin. There is also the risk of the body attacking the modified insulin, and the fact that bacteria are not the best at building structures that make up insulin.

But it is a starting point, and one that in theory could hold a great deal of promise. It will likely be years before this research would begin yielding further testing or results, but the process is starting as Glass further develops his study and seeks funding to start experimentation using mice.

It is these types of ideas and experiments that keep type 1 diabetes research moving forward, but support and funding are critical. The Diabetes Research Connection aims to help early career researchers overcome some of these challenges by providing funding for research into prevention, treatment, and cures for type 1 diabetes. To learn more about current projects and support these efforts, visit www.diabetesresearchconnection.org.  

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