Emory Report
February 6, 2006
Volume 58, Number 18


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February 6, 2006
Transplant center gets $8.5M JDRF grant for islet research

BY Holly Korschun

Emory’s Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Center for Islet Transplantation has received new five-year funding from JDRF of nearly $8.5 million, with the goal of advancing islet transplantation to a mainstream therapy for Type 1 diabetes.

Created and funded through a $4.1 million grant from JDRF in 2002, Emory’s center addresses the problem of rejection of donor islets by a patient’s immune system. Although islet transplantation from a donor’s pancreas can restore normal insulin production in people with Type 1 diabetes, several problems still exist with current immunosuppressive protocols. The Emory center will continue to research new strategies leading toward the goal of insulin independence for these patients, without long-term immunosuppression.

Emory physician/scientists have been working for the past several years to refine the islet transplant procedure and to develop immunosuppressive compounds that are equally effective but less toxic to transplant recipients. The Emory JDRF Center’s first clinical trial of islet transplantation recently concluded after 15 islet transplants were successfully performed in eight patients with Type 1 diabetes. A new islet transplant clinical trial, testing a new drug not previously used in transplantation, began in January.

The new funding will be applied to four specific projects. Project 1 will study the safety and effectiveness of Efalizumab (a drug from a new class of therapeutic agents) as part of a four-part drug regimen for human islet transplant recipients. In Project 2, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center will explore methods of inducing tolerance to allogeneic islet transplants (islets from the same species) in nonhuman primates.

Project 3 will focus on anti-inflammatory strategies for islet engraftment, the process by which islets become incorporated into the patient’s own system. Project 4, also at Yerkes, will use nonhuman primates to explore xenotransplantation, or transplantation from other species.

Christian Larsen, director of the Emory Transplant Center, is director of the clinical islet transplantation program and of Emory’s JDRF Center for Islet Transplantation. Larsen is internationally recognized for his work in devising novel strategies to achieve transplantation tolerance. Center co-principal investigator Collin Weber’s career has spanned 25 years of investigations and contributions to the field of diabetes research.

“The JDRF center has made it possible for us to make significant progress in advancing the field of islet transplantation,” Larsen said. “This new funding will allow us to continue our quest to find innovative ways of allowing patients to receive islet transplants without the toxicities associated with conventional immunosuppressant drugs.”

The Emory Transplant Center is one of the most comprehensive transplant centers in the Southeast, encompassing programs in heart, lung, liver, kidney and kidney-pancreas transplants and fostering cutting-edge basic, translational and clinical research to improve the effectiveness of transplantation and to establish true immune tolerance. In 2003 the center established the first clinical islet cell transplant program in Georgia and has since conducted 15 successful islet transplant procedures in eight patients.

JDRF, the world’s leading nonprofit, nongovernmental funder of diabetes research, was founded in 1970 by the parents of children with juvenile diabetes. The disease strikes children suddenly, makes them insulin dependent for life, and carries the constant threat of devastating complications. Since inception, JDRF has provided more than $900 million to diabetes research worldwide.