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JDRF awards $649,075 PDRC associate professor Ulupi Jhala

Dr. Ulupi Jhala, one of the PDRC's highly regarded scientists, is the recipient of a grant award from the JDRF that will fund her lab's investigation of how one gene impacts the fate of pancreatic beta cells. She hopes that by learning more about how the gene works, she and other scientists may establish a new process to create insulin-producing beta cells from other cell types in the pancreas.

Previous experiments have demonstrated that the gene, called PDX-1, is responsible for shaping the pancreas early in development. While the beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin, a variety of cell types that perform different functions also can be found in the pancreas. Each of these cells has a distinct set of factors that determine its identity. As development continues, the scope of PDX-1's influence is limited mainly to insulin-secreting beta cells, where it critically regulates insulin production in response to glucose. Other pancreatic cells require the silencing of PDX-1 to attain other identities.

Dr. Jhala's lab will create controlled experiments to ask how the gene is silenced, by measuring the effects of a process called methylation on PDX-1 gene expression. In general methylation is a local modification that can alter the expression of a given gene like PDX1.

It is hoped that understanding how PDX1 silencing occurs will allow us to undo the silencing in non-beta cells of the pancreas, and thereby reprogram them into insulin producing cells for cell based therapies.

Dr. Jhala asserts that cell-based therapies, such as this one, hold great promise for reducing the absolute insulin dependence of individuals with type 1 diabetes. If scientists can successfully restart insulin production by reprogramming non-beta cells into beta cells, the benefit will be tremendous.