UBC researchers working to engineer 'tunable' insulin production

British Columbia  –  July 27, 2017 –  JDRF has awarded Dr. James Johnson and his team from the University of British Columbia (UBC) a grant of US$150,000 for a one-year study on whether insulin levels produced by transplanted pancreatic beta cells can be controlled and stabilized. Modifying insulin levels in a controlled fashion is referred to as ‘tunable’ insulin, and this technology could make beta cell transplants – an emerging way to treat T1D – safer and more successful.

In people living with T1D, insulin levels are low because the pancreatic beta cells that generate insulin are depleted. Transplants of beta cells are one way to increase the number of these cells and thereby increase the amount of insulin available in the person’s body. In vitro molecular biology studies are underway that would modulate (regulate) insulin secretion in successfully transplanted cells. Researchers are now using stem cells to meet the demands for these surrogate beta cells. 

Dr. Johnson and his team are using a gene activation technology called CRISPR to harness light energy to enhance or suppress the production of insulin in transplanted beta cells. If successful, it will be the first use of CRISPR in this way. 

 “We have chosen to test whether insulin production can be controlled by a recently described CRISPR system that can be induced by light. Our goal is to create beta cell replacements from stem cells where insulin production can be supercharged in mature cells, or turned down to protect the cells from stress, including the stresses associated with transplantation,” Dr. Johnson added. 

It is easy to see why a technology to increase the amount of insulin in the body would be a good thing for people living with T1D. However, why would there also be a need to decrease the amount of insulin? According to research published in 2016 by Johnson’s team in the journal Cell Metabolism, the maximal production of insulin itself is a stress that can make beta cells vulnerable and easily destroyed during times of added stress, such as during beta cell transplant. Being able to ‘turn down’ the insulin production from transplanted beta cells can help protect these cells during transplantation and other stressful times. It could also reduce unwanted excess insulin secretion, which Johnson’s group has also demonstrated has negative consequences for health in a 2017 publication in the journal Cell Reports.

“The ability to increase or decrease insulin production in transplanted beta cells could help fine tune treatments,” said Dave Prowten, president and CEO of JDRF Canada. “JDRF is a proud sponsor of emerging technologies and research such as this one, in our quest for a cure for type 1 diabetes.”

About JDRF

JDRF is the leading global organization funding T1D research. Our goal is to raise funds to support the most advanced international T1D research and progressively remove the impact of this disease from people’s lives – until we achieve a world without T1D. JDRF collaborates with a wide spectrum of partners and is the only organization with the scientific resources, regulatory influence, and a working plan to better treat, prevent, and eventually cure T1D. JDRF is the largest charitable supporter of T1D research. For more information, please visit jdrf.ca.

Media contact

Sherene Chen-See
National Communications Specialist, JDRF Canada
[email protected]

About University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Since 1915, UBC’s entrepreneurial spirit has embraced innovation and challenged the status quo. UBC encourages its students, staff, and faculty to challenge convention, lead discovery, and explore new ways of learning. At UBC, bold thinking is given a place to develop into ideas that can change the world.

Media contact

Heather Amos
Senior Media Relations Specialist, UBC
[email protected]

Lets turn type one into type none