The University’s Brehm Center and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation have partnered to investigate a new hypothesis about the origins of Type 1 diabetes.

Scientists have long supported the idea that in Type 1 diabetes, the body loses its ability to produce insulin due to the death of beta cells, which are insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Recently, however, researchers at the Brehm Center found evidence that beta cells may not be dying, but instead regressing to an immature state and losing the ability to produce insulin.

JDRF, the top Type 1 diabetes fundraising organization worldwide, granted the center roughly $1 million to explore the hypothesis. Andrew Rakeman, director for JDRF’s Cure Therapies division, said the collaboration intends to confirm the process is occurring and, if it is, to look for ways to disrupt and reverse beta cell regression.

“The first steps will be to really show through animal models, mouse models with Type 1 diabetes, as well as with samples from humans with Type 1 diabetes whether or not this process is occurring,” Rakeman said. “Second, we’ll be beginning to look at what are the mechanisms that cause the beta cells to lose function, and could we think about drugs or therapies that would disrupt that mechanism.”

The Brehm Center was founded in 2004 with a $44 million gift from Bill and Delores Brehm, frequent University donors. They have also sponsored the construction of the Brehm pavilion at the School of Music, Theater and Dance.

However, the center’s researchers do not work in the same place. Instead, researchers are joined through the Brehm Coalition, a group of nine senior scientists with labs at eight different universities across the country.

Dorene Markel, director of the Brehm Center, said such a coalition was unprecedented in diabetes research.

“The Brehms actually had this idea of forming the Brehm Coalition — sort of a dream team of scientists who would work as if they were all co-located, except they wouldn’t be,” Markel said. “It was formed to really have a team of scientists who would work together in a way that really had not happened in diabetes research before.”

While many members of the Brehm Coalition are already funded independently by JDRF, Markel said this will be the first time JDRF has funded the coalition as a whole. In response, Markel said the coalition will ensure that JDRF will be an active participant in the research process.

“We have suggested that this be a learning exercise where the JDRF scientific members and the JDRF will participate,” Markel said. “They can help drive where the research goes, and be an active piece of the research, which is not something that JDRF has been invited to do before.”

Markel added that the finding of immature beta cells raises questions that can only be answered by probing further into the biology of Type 1 diabetes.

“Why do these beta cells stop producing insulin?” Markel said. “Are there going to be treatments down the road that we can then develop based on what we discover about how the beta cells actually are impacted by diabetes? This is actually throwing a whole set of new approaches to better understand what’s happening to the beta cells in Type 1 diabetes so that we can ultimately have better treatment.”

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