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Saving cells

Meri Firpo, Ph.D., and Anindya Bagchi, Ph.D., team up to protect beta cells, with the hope of ultimately preventing diabetes.

An innovative new collaboration pairs diabetes and cancer scientists

Scientist Meri Firpo, Ph.D., spends countless hours in her University of Minnesota lab intensely focused on stem cell research that could lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes.

But sometimes, she says, it’s the ideas that arise outside of the lab—after work—that provide a fresh perspective on research questions and, ultimately, lead to new discoveries.

One of Firpo’s latest diabetes research projects started with a conversation she had at a grad student recruiting party. Thanks to that chat, Firpo and University cancer biologist Anindya Bagchi, Ph.D., are teaming up to find a way to protect insulin-producing beta (or islet) cells—the ones damaged in diabetes.

“We know that in both cases of type 1 and late-stage type 2 diabetes, the cells that make insulin are damaged and die,” Firpo says. “We might be able to find ways to block that cell death.”

Learning from cancer research

Firpo, an assistant professor in the University’s Stem Cell Institute and the Schulze Diabetes Institute, says that the key to her research with Bagchi is determining how cell death occurs and what stops it.

That’s where the cancer research comes in.

“With cancer cells, they don’t die,” says Bagchi. “They keep growing and growing.” So, if cancer illustrates accelerated cell growth, the opposite is accelerated aging—cells dying prematurely, he explains. This is what happens in diabetes.

In type 1 diabetes, a person’s immune system no longer recognizes its own insulin-producing beta cells, which causes T-cells to kill them. In type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin—causing the beta cells to fail.

Using mouse models, Firpo and Bagchi are studying the differences in cellular pathways that are activated in both healthy and dying beta cells. Their goal is to intervene and protect the beta cells.

If the technique proves successful, says Firpo, it could also be used to get beta cells to regenerate—providing an alternative to islet transplantation to treat type 1 diabetes.

“Ultimately, we would rather cure type 1 by getting the beta cells to grow back,” she says. “It would be better for patients if we could get the islets to regenerate instead of [resorting to] transplantation.”

Collaboration is key

Both Firpo and Bagchi say that cross-field collaboration is essential to research success and one of the perks of working at a world-class research University.

“The collaborative opportunity at the University is unbelievable,” Bagchi says. “The signature of a good problem is that it has multiple sides. You have to think non-linearly.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration makes that possible.

Crucial support for early ideas

Firpo’s and Bagchi’s project is so new, that Firpo’s lab is currently paying for it while the scientists seek other funding.

That’s not unusual; the newest, most inventive ideas are often the hardest to fund.

Most major funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), support research that’s much further along and can demonstrate promising early results.

Firpo says her work with Bagchi is not yet at that stage. “This is something that might be higher risk [to fund], because it’s so new, but it could have a larger affect for people,” she says.

That’s why philanthropic support is so crucial, concludes Bagchi. “Even if it’s a small amount of money—it’s so helpful to get funding.”

“If you want to make an impact, you have to shake up the paradigm. If we don’t take risks, we can’t discover,” he says. “That’s where the breakthroughs come.”

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