Sander Awarded $4.95 Million for Novel Diabetes Cell Therapy Research

Dr. Maike Sander

By Shivani Singh, Sr. Writer

Dr. Maike Sander, Associate Professor in Pediatrics and Cellular & Molecular Medicine, was awarded a $4,950,000 grant from the Beta Cell Biology Consortium (BCBC) to lead an interdisciplinary team in cell therapy research for diabetes. Funded as the Principal Investigator of this prestigious award, Sander will be leading a team of domestic and international collaborators to differentiate replacement insulin-producing beta cells from patient cells.

The grant is shared with Karl Willert in the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program who will apply a screening platform for cellular microenvironments to beta cell differentiation. Other participants include labs at the University of Pennsylvania and in Barcelona, Spain as well as a San Diego-based biotech company.

Dr. Sander serves as a physician-scientist for UC San Diego’s new Pediatric Diabetes Research Center (PDRC). Launched the summer of 2008, the PDRC uniquely brings together top-ranked physicians and research scientists to investigate the causes and cure of type 1 diabetes.

With over twenty years of experience in medicine and academic research, Sander is an expert in pancreas biology and has established beta cell differentiation protocols using human embryonic stem cells (hESC) in her laboratory. After graduating with an M.D. from the University of Heidelberg Medical School in Germany, Sander received a post-doctoral fellowship as well as a California Diabetes Association Young Investigator Award to conduct research at UC San Francisco. A recipient of a 5-year Career Development Award from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Sander went on to become an assistant professor at Hamburg Medical School, Germany, and UC Irvine.

In 2006, Dr. Sander accepted her current role as associate professor at UC San Diego. The major focus of Sander’s current research is to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the ability of multipotent stem/progenitor cells to produce the different cell types of the pancreas.

“Right now, scientists can create pancreatic progenitor cells from hESCs. However, our goal is to take it a step further and make replacement beta cells,” Sander expresses. “We want to be able to instruct patient-derived stem cells to be beta cells.”

Since the first pioneering work on islet transplantation, it has become clear that a cell-based approach for the treatment of diabetes mellitus can have significant benefits in terms of insulin independence and a reduced risk of hypoglycemia. But turning hESCs into functioning beta cells forever? For someone diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, that’s a tall order to fill.

Sander is hopeful.

“This grant is a perfect example of collaboration and translational medicine for a greater cause,” Sander remarks. “It’s not about who discovers the cure first. It’s about finding a cure – fast.”


Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age. However, half of the patients are diagnosed before the age of 20. The exact cause is unknown. Genetics, viruses, and environmental factors are thought to play a role in causing the autoimmune response that eventually leads to beta cell destruction.


Since its founding in 1965, UC San Diego’s School of Medicine has fostered world-renowned research in regenerative medicine, genetics, cellular and molecular medicine, and immunology. In order to provide the San Diego community with the best medical education and pediatric care, the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Rady Children’s Hospital joined in a special partnership to conduct clinical education and pediatric care from the Rady Children’s Hospital campus and clinics. Currently, physicians from UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital treat more than 1,000 children with type 1 diabetes every year.

Optimizing UC San Diego’s strengths in clinical care and research, the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center seeks to fuel its combined effort to prevent, cure, and treat diabetes.


The BCBC was created by NIH/NIDDK to advance development of a cell-based therapy for diabetes through collaborative and interdisciplinary research.

SCIENTIFIC CONTACT: Dr. Maike Sander, Assoc. Professor, Dept of Pediatrics and Cellular & Molecular Medicine, UC San Diego

Sander Laboratory Website: