Eli Lilly and Company (NYSE: LLY) and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) announced in early February 2011 that they have signed an agreement to fund early-stage research that could enable patients with type 1 diabetes to regenerate insulin-producing cells destroyed by the disease.
“The goal of this research agreement is to understand how selected cells can be reprogrammed in order to convert them into insulin-producing cells in the body,” said Philip Larsen, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer for diabetes drug discovery at Lilly. “This research is an example of regenerative medicine, a new frontier in science that replaces or regenerates new cells, tissues or organs, and while this particular research is early stage, it may ultimately lead to new approaches to treating type 1 diabetes.”
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells, stopping a person’s pancreas from producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone that enables people to get energy from food. According to JDRF, in the U.S. alone, as many as three million people have type 1 diabetes.
One research approach to finding novel treatments for type 1 diabetes may be to restore insulin production by regenerating insulin-producing cells within a person’s body. This involves triggering the body to grow its own new beta cells, either by growing existing ones — some are usually still active, even in people who have had diabetes for decades — or by creating new ones by reprogramming, which involves converting one type of cell in the body into a different type. If a therapeutic is developed that will allow for the regeneration of beta cells, it could potentially eliminate the need for insulin.
The JDRF-Lilly agreement will support a three-year, $1.4 million pre-clinical research effort to be led by Dr. Pedro Herrera of the University of Geneva. Previous research by Dr. Herrera showed that alpha cells in the pancreas can spontaneously, and without genetic manipulation, convert into beta cells. This suggests that alpha cell reprogramming could be a viable strategy for regenerating beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes.
Building on this research, Dr. Herrera will collaborate with Lilly researchers to better understand these findings with the goal of translating them into potential drug targets and eventually, perhaps, even new therapies.
“As part of JDRF’s focus on regeneration research, we see this collaboration as a critical opportunity to nurture new strategies to restore insulin production in people with type 1 diabetes. Previous efforts to reprogram non-beta cells into insulin-producing cells without genetic manipulation have not easily translated into therapies for type 1 diabetes,” said Patricia Kilian, Ph.D., JDRF’s Director of Regeneration Program. “Collaborative research efforts like this can help address critical gaps to accelerate potentially promising research to patients,” added Karin Hehenberger, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president of Strategic Alliances for JDRF. “We seek partners who can help us deliver on our commitment to people living with diabetes, and Lilly has a long and productive history in the diabetes therapeutic space.”
The agreement between JDRF and Lilly comes on the heels of a separate announcement in which Lilly and Boehinger Ingelheim said they will jointly develop and commercialize a portfolio of diabetes compounds currently in mid- and late-stage development.