The sugar, the beta and Santamaria

By Laura Glick

Mom always said two heads are better than one, and in this case, five university research teams are better than one.

Starting September, the University of Calgary will join forces with Simon Fraser University, and the universities of British Columbia, Ottawa and Alberta in a three-year diabetes research project.

Dr. Pere Santamaria (photograph at right), an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, will be the Calgary representative in the $6 million partnership.

“There are five projects,” explained Santamaria, “and each involves most of us. Each project will be led by someone from the individual institution and then the other members of the network will be providing specific reagents or unique expertise.”

The network’s research will focus on building up strength and resistance of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas instead of targeting specific external attack pathways. Diabetes occurs when beta cells no longer produce insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.

“The ultimate goal is to render the beta cells of the pancreas resistant to what we call suicide signals,” said Santamaria.

“Immunological events that attack the cells trigger these suicidal mechanisms on the target cells, the beta cells,” he said. “So the goal is to block the metabolic cascades that eventually lead to this suicide cell death.”

A gene previously constructed by the network will be utilized as the key reactant in the cell experiments. Researchers hope this gene will cause resistance in beta cells.

The project, funded by the Medical Research Council of Canada and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation of Canada, will concentrate on the most common form of diabetes, Type 1.

Calgary JDFC Campaign Manager Brian Markic was pleased to support the project.

“Anything that’s going to allow us to develop new breakthroughs that are going to help us search for that cure is something that is worth funding,” he said.

The experiments will look at both the initial events prior to onset of diabetes as well as the post-islet transplant reactions which can also lead to beta cell destruction. The feasibility of isolating the islets of the beta cells and successfully transplanting them while maintaining resistance will also be a main question for the research team.

Investigators will meet bi-annually for large-scale information sharing, but will have on going communication with one another as well as the funding organizations.

Markic and Santamaria are both optimistic about the rewards of the five institution collaboration.

“It allows us to broaden our base of skilled, knowledgeable people that are involved in the project,” said Markic. “The more people that are involved is certainly going to benefit us all.”

The network’s approach to Type 1 diabetes research is also unique because it focuses on the internal workings of the beta cell and the common destination site for the suicide pathways, hopefully providing general answers to multiple questions.

“All the other approaches target a very specific pathway that eventually leads to cell death,” explained Santamaria. “None has been attempted that blocks all the pathways.

“All the pathways start in different molecules on the SUrface of the beta cell and eventually converge,” he added.

The project also offers a broader learning experience for graduate and post-doctoral fellows. Those participating will have access to all participating institutions’ laboratories, research findings and course information via the internet.

“What we have is a mutual group through the net called mutual university,” said Santamaria. “Students will have the opportunity to see how other institutions work, so it will open their perspectives. Courses that are not being offered here will be offered through, for example, UBC, and students will be able to attend those courses through the net and vice versa.”

Santamaria hopes other institutions will push for learning experiences like this by initiating similar multi-facility projects as they increase their knowledge pool.

For more information on Type 1 diabetes visit the Juvenile

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