About 2 weeks ago, I was in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area to attend the Diabetes Research Institute's Diabetes 2.0 Conference. I have attended several of their New York conferences in the past, but I had never been to their home-base in Florida before (ironic, considering my brother and sister both live nearby). Anyway, I was given a rare opportunity, along with some of my D-Blogging peers including Gina Capone, Allison Blass, Kerri Sparling, Manny Hernandez, Ellen Ullman and Jeff Hitchcock to go on a guided tour through the DRI's research facilities. That was very cool, and enlightening to see the work going on first-hand.
The DRI's researchers are among the most gregarious hosts to visitors I've ever encountered, and of course, they have made more than a few groundbreaking discoveries in their laboratories. Their world-class research facility and also their approachability are very impressive.
To put things into relevant context, let's start by noting that the 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded for the development of the green fluorescent protein (GFP), which has since gone on to play a crucial role in the identification and understanding of various proteins, which includes pancreatic beta cells, glucagon-producing alpha cells, insulin, etc. This discovery was quickly followed with not only green color, but also with fluorescent red and blue colors, which now enables scientists to stain various proteins with different fluorescent colors and examine them under high-powered microscopes and easily see the tiny specs in technicolor details.
Researchers now stain the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells in fluorescent green color, the pancreatic glucagon-producing alpha cells in fluorescent red color, and the and the nuclei in fluorescent blue color. This enables the most relevant parts of the Islets of Langerhans to be seen in distinctive colors, and observed. OK. This was deployed and the key components of the Islets can now be observed in amazing Technicolor detail, and in real-time! Awesome stuff that researchers back in Banting's day could only fantasize about.
Have a look at a photo of the fluorescently-stained Islets of Langerhans at Wikipedia, and in particular, the photograph. Note the different colors (Green, Red, Blue) being used to depict different components of the Islets.
But here's the really cool part.
The DRI has partnered with The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and researchers at Karolinska have developed a technique that involves transplanting the Islets of Langerhans into the eyes of a Non-Obese Diabetic Mouse (NOD), which enables them to see how the Islets work (and get attacked by the body's immune system). The sedated mouse is placed under a microscope) and the lens of the microscope zooms in to watch all this stuff in real-time, and thanks to the computerization of microscopes today, the images can be transported instantly and shared between researchers in Stockholm and Miami (in fact, I believe researchers in Stockholm can control the zoom of the microscope in Miami remotely). But these observations can also be recorded on the computer and are often used in scientific presentations. The DRI is planning to feature some of these video images on their website in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future!
If I'm not mistaken, this technology is being used to observe the autoimmune process in action, which could enable the development more effective treatments to induce tolerance to the Islets of Langerhans (and that also includes those Islets regenerated by the body itself, so it's not limited to transplanted). Very high-tech, but also the kind of a "Fantastic Voyage" inside the body that was first depicted on the big-screen in the classic 1966 sci-fi film of the same name. If you prefer, there was the slightly more modern 1985 Steven Spielberg film "Innerspace" which was very similar in nature, or in 2002, a B-movie called "Antibody" starring Robin Givens was yet another adaptation of the same basic movie theme.
During the tour, I asked the researchers about whether they had considered putting a DVD of these observations (perhaps selling the document as a fundraiser for the DRI Foundation), and I was told that the DRI is planning to do even better: they hope to have recorded movies of the stuff being observed under the microscope on their website in the future! Of course, such images need to include excellent narration so that the average layperson can follow along, but the stuff they're doing today is light-years beyond the stuff they were doing as little as a decade ago.
Taking a step back, below is a clip from NBC News that features one of the researchers at the DRI who showed us under his microscope, Dr. Juan Dominguez-Bendala, Ph.D. who is a DRI Researcher. Videos for each presentation, including the panel I appeared on at lunchtime can be viewed at the DRI's website here (or click on the header above).
Another thing that most impressed me from my visit to the DRI, and in getting to meet many of the researchers in person was the pace at which diabetes research occurs today. As noted, researchers can watch the body's (at least in a NOD mouse) immune system actually infiltrating the Islets and can also see if theoretical interventions they're pioneering at the DRI work, and if so, HOW they work.
Not too long ago, most of this stuff was indeed only science fiction, as the aforementioned movies seem to suggest. But today, thanks to some truly revolutionary discoveries and some very smart partnerships with leading researchers around the world, the DRI truly has made a number of astonishing advances. The rate at which new knowledge about type 1 diabetes accumulates related to the autoimmune response and immune tolerance treatments, cell culture and development, and watching how these various interventions work (or sometimes, do NOT work) has indeed accelerated the advancement of progress being made to cure diabetes. Another quite admirable quality is the fact that most DRI researchers aren't pursuing their research for publishing rights to advance their own careers, or advance shares they own in for-profit biotech and drug companies (for the most part; I have some reservations about using this description for Dr. Jay Skyler), and seem willing to cooperate with almost anyone willing and able to collaborate to advance the DRI Foundation's mission: to provide the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) with the funding necessary to cure diabetes now. This is truly an impressive organization and they are doing some groundbreaking research!