European Research Council awards grant for research on insulin-producing cells

The ERC Advanced Grant is one of the most prestigious funding programmes for research in Europe. Per-Olof Berggren, professor of experimental endocrinology at Karolinska Institutet, is now awarded this grant for the second time.

It is the European Research Council that awards the ERC Advanced Grants, which are aimed at established and world-leading researchers who strive for ground breaking breakthroughs with the highest scientific quality. The researchers are being funded with up to EUR 2.5 million over a five-year period. Of the 2052 applicants in 2018, 222 have now been awarded the grant, of which 6 are from Swedish universities. The most successful country is the UK, with 47 awarded applicants.

Per-Olof Berggren's research is about understanding how the insulin producing beta-cells function under normal conditions and why they cease to work in diabetes. One major challenge when it comes to research on beta-cell physiology and pathology is to translate information obtained from isolated cells in a laboratory test-tube into the conditions that exists in the living human body.

Together with his colleagues, Per-Olof Berggren have established the anterior chamber of the eye (ACE) as a favorable environment for long term survival of islet grafts, and the cornea as a natural body window for non-invasive, longitudinal optical monitoring of islet function. ACE engrafted islets are able to maintain blood glucose homeostasis in diabetic animals, and the researchers are now starting up human clinical trials. Tissue engineering of native islets is technically difficult, and the researchers will therefore apply genetically engineered islet organoids.

Regenerative medicine approach

The objective in the current project, funded by the ERC, is to combine tissue engineering of islet cell organoids, transplantation to the ACE, synthetic biology, local pharmacological treatment strategies and the development of novel micro-electronic/micro-optical readout systems for islet cells. This regenerative medicine approach will follow the clinical trial programs and be transferred into the clinic to combat diabetes.

"We hypothesize that genetically engineered islet organoids transplanted to the ACE are superior to native pancreatic islets to monitor and treat insulin-dependent diabetes", comments Professor Berggren. "Our overall aim is to create a platform allowing monitoring and treatment of insulin-dependent diabetes in mice that can be transferred to large animals for validation."

Diabetes is one of the major and severe public health issues, spreading like an epidemic globally. Per-Olof Berggren was awarded the ERC Advanced Grant for the first time in 2013, and he has also received funding through the ERC Proof of Concept, a programme aimed at researchers who want to explore the commercial potential of their findings.

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