Diabetes research with mice. Right. We’re never sure when humans will be able to oust the mouse. When fellow D-blogger and journalist Mike Hoskins discovered an interesting study right in his own backyard, he headed straight behind the scenes to get the scoop for us:
Once again, some diabetes research news crossed my inbox and made my eyes roll: “Researchers find beta cell stress could trigger the development of type 1 diabetes.”
Apparently, a study published in the March 22 issue of the American Diabetes Association research journal Diabetes provides “an important clue” about how diabetes begins and possibly sets the stage for finding ways to prevent this process. Oh, and the eye-rolling clincher? Lab mice were the keys in recognizing how this beta cell stress triggers diabetes.
Of course. Mice. Cue more eye rolling here.
But in this case, I read the rest of the news release and saw that the researchers were based at Indiana University School of Medicine – a short drive from my house south of Indianapolis. So this was a prime opportunity to sit down for a video Q&A with some of these “breakthrough” researchers to find out what D-studies with these furry friends actually prove…
The researchers in question here were: Raghu Mirmira, M.D., Ph.D., Eli Lilly and Co. Professor of Pediatric Diabetes; and Sarah Tersey, Ph.D., assistant research professor of pediatrics. I learned that the study took about 13 months from the initial research to publication, but the lab time was only about three to four months. And Tersey, who leads the mouse-research, was pregnant and had her second child right in the middle of the research cycle!
* apologies for a bit of a lag on the audio here.
Most of what they said was full of science-lingo. Here’s what the news release stated: “They were also able to identify elevated levels of a protein in mice resulting from the cellular dysfunction that might serve as a biomarker for a simple blood test to identify who is actually in the process of developing diabetes. The dysfunction identified, called endoplasmic reticulum stress (or ER stress), has previously been linked to type 2 diabetes. ER stress had not been previously shown as occurring before the development of type 1 diabetes.”
This research is the first of its kind in that it shows the specific kind of beta cell stress that might trigger diabetes, rather than the past science that’s only “generically” shown that beta cell stress is an apparent trigger. This new research indicates there might be more of a link between type 1 and type 2 than we’ve thought, and that already-available medications for type 2 could be a way to target and prevent this process from happening.
Mirmira and Tersey (and their team of about a dozen others) have already started the next phase of research, giving the mouse-subjects undisclosed drugs for type 2 diabetes to determine if those medications make any impact on the beta cell stress and diabetes diagnosis.
They also explain, in our video Q&A, about why this really matters to those of us already living with diabetes!
Walking around their lab in one of the IU School of Medicine buildings, I got to actually see the mice that have played a part in this research.
I would have loved to film these mice in action, but apparently that’s not permitted, for a reason I hadn’t contemplated. IU urged me to “play down the mice aspect” because researchers are constantly facing backlash from animal rights’ advocates that — despite any potential medical benefit — try to stop this kind of mouse model research out of concern for the rodents. Apparently “any video or photo could be taken out of context,” especially in this day and age where everything’s online, so IU tries to sidestep those issues completely by just avoiding specifics on the mice.
Off camera, I did get a behind-the-scenes look inside the lab where this research happens and the many mice that help out, when they’re not lounging in their controlled environment somewhere else in the building.
A fascinating aspect was seeing the special mouse glucometers (which really do look like normal human meters) that go up to 800 mg/dL – rather than the 600 mg/dL that most human meters are capped at. Mirmira says mice readings go higher than those in human beings so the mice glucometers need to read higher as well. As the researchers say in the video, they don’t name the mice and are actually not supposed to do that to prevent any human-mouse connections and bonds. So don’t expect to find a Mickey or Minnie around the labs, as they only refer to them by any one of the many cage numbers.
btw, the JDRF sent out its own news release on this study, as the organization funded the research. Following up on the scope of their involvement, JDRF media writer Tara Wilcox-Ghanoonparvar answered a few questions for the ‘Mine.
DM) Has the JDRF been involved in any other similar research?
TWG) Yes, we are continuing to fund Dr. Mirmira to investigate a therapeutic strategy that could be useful to alleviate ER stress (the type of stress he found in the NOD mice). We’re also funding a number of other investigations into the role of ER stress in human T1D and to identify potential drug targets and therapeutic strategies to relieve stress on the beta cell in the hopes of preserving beta cell mass in T1D. From Dr. Mirmira’s work as well as others, it is becoming increasingly clear that beta cell stress and dysfunction are critical for T1D – finding ways to promote beta cell survival and preserve beta cell health and function is a key priority area for the JDRF Regeneration Program.
Why is this mice-only study exciting, considering the hundreds of research lines we already have using mice?
While it is true that this work focused only on mice, the data are consistent with previous observations in human T1D, which suggest that beta cell stress and dysfunction precede insulin dependence. This is exciting because it gives us a new insight not only into the events that are happening at the early stages of T1D but also suggests ways to help preserve beta cell function and perhaps prevent insulin-dependence in T1D.
What’s next on this from the JDRF’s perspective?
The next big step will be to translate this interesting biological observation into a potential therapeutic strategy for T1D. We continue to support Dr. Mirmira to investigate a potential strategy to alleviate ER stress in the beta cell, and as noted, the Regeneration Program is supporting a number of other investigators to better understand the role of beta cell stress in T1D and develop therapeutic strategies to alleviate the stress and maintain beta cell function.
Sometimes, it gets a little annoying when you hear about these mice getting all the scientific benefit from this research, and it doesn’t really resonate with our daily lives as PWDs. But it’s interesting to get an inside track on what the research means. Makes you feel hopeful that some good is actually happening in these labs, thanks to those good ‘ol NOD mice!