It’s not around the corner, but it’s in sight
Jan Jensen, PhD, the first to hold the Eddie J. Brandon Endowed Chair for Diabetes Research, came to Cleveland Clinic two and a half years ago to work toward the goal of finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Dr. Jensen, 42, is certain the disease will be cured in his lifetime. He says there’s been accelerated movement toward that end since 2006, when Japanese physician and stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka and his team turned the scientific world on its ear by generating cells believed to be identical to embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell, including – and this is the focus of Dr. Jensen’s work – insulin-producing pancreatic cells.
Dr. Jensen is working on a different track from that of Dr. Yamanaka’s team. The Japanese researchers employed genes to help cells become undifferentiated – for example, reverting an adult skin cell to a state nearly identical to that of an embryonic stem cell. This is new science, but if it can be perfected, there would be an unlimited source of stem cells without the use of human embryos.
Dr. Jensen’s research involves learning how to coax these newly undifferentiated cells to become insulin-producing beta cells, also known as islet cells.
“These beta cells are ‘the Holy Grail,’” says Dr. Jensen, who feels an obligation to help the millions of people who grapple with type 1 diabetes. Islet cell transplantation is not the answer because there are not enough donors, he says. Instead, “We need a universal source of insulin cells. Like going to the supermarket and picking up 2 grams of islet cells.”
That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Researchers around the world are working toward a cure for the disease. “I see a replacement cure in place,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be myself. I want to see my contribution somewhere along the trail that led to it.”
Dr. Jensen and five other researchers in his lab at Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute are studying 20 genes to understand how those genes affect the development or differentiation of cells. They’re also studying signaling cells that help lead an undifferentiated cell to develop into one kind of cell over another.
Their aim can be summed up in two words: cell therapy. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas no longer produce insulin. “We need to make new cells. We need to provide cells to produce the insulin of those cells that were lost,” Dr. Jensen says. “Type 1 diabetes is screaming for cell therapy.”
Endowed chairs, such as the Eddie J. Brandon Endowed Chair for Diabetes Research, help support activities in the lab and expand research. And they have another, even greater purpose, according to Dr. Jensen. “Chairs give researchers leeway to take chances they couldn’t otherwise take.” Research grants are earmarked for particular activities. “There’s very little room to simply take a big chance, to say, ‘This is exciting. Let’s see what happens.’”
But with endowed funding, “We can say, ‘Let’s try it and see what comes out,’” he says. “It can lead to breakthrough insight that you can’t get with conventional wisdom.”
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