NIH awards Scripps Research scientist for research into Type I diabetes

Grant Will Fund Research into Early Diagnoses and New Treatment Options

A scientist at The Scripps Research Institute has been awarded $4.2 million from the National Institutes of Health in a program to advance what the agency calls "bold and creative research" into Type I diabetes.

Thomas Kodadek, a professor in the Department of Chemistry on the Scripps Florida campus, is the principle investigator on the study. The award will be shared with researchers at the University of Miami and Opko, a Florida-based biotechnology company.

The new four-year grant from the NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) is a special Type I Diabetes Impact Award (DP3). Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which leads to insulin deficiency; the condition is treated with regular insulin injections.

The new grant to Kodadek and his colleagues will fund research to determine early autoimmune reactions that drive the development of Type I diabetes, as well as to look for ways to selectively block such autoimmune diseases without shutting down or damaging the entire immune response.   

"Once the earliest autoimmune reactions have been identified," Kodadek said, "we can develop compounds that specifically target the autoimmune cells to see if we can block the disease in mice without affecting the normal function of the 'good' parts of the immune system. This would set the stage for similar studies in human diabetic patients.  Obviously, if we succeed in developing a therapy for humans, it would have a radical impact on the detection and treatment of diabetes—and other autoimmune conditions as well."  

The research funded by the new grant may also lead to new ways to detect Type 1 diabetes. Currently, immunoassays, a technique that detects auto-antibodies for human insulin, are used as early diagnostic markers for Type I diabetes, and for screening and risk assessment in clinical trials. Because progression of diabetes is often haphazard, additional markers are needed to improve overall risk assessment.

The novel approach Kodadek uses in his research involves peptoids, synthetic molecules similar to peptides that make up proteins when joined together. His lab uses these peptoids to screen or search for molecules that bind to and affect the action of a type of immune system molecule called an antibody.

Like the handmade flies used by fishermen, the synthetic peptoids are a lure to capture disease-specific antibodies—in this case, for diabetes—well enough to pull them from blood samples. It's a novel way to short-circuit the discovery process that has been used successfully in the lab for Alzheimer's disease. In the new project, once novel autoimmune cells for diabetes have been identified, Kodadek said, the scientists will begin to determine whether they can be turned off selectively, proof-of-principle for what could be a powerful therapeutic strategy.

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