A Midsummer Night at the Broad

Anne Buboltz, July 22nd, 2010 | Filed under

The focus of last night’s Midsummer Nights' Science Lecture at the Broad lecture was diabetes –a disease that affects more than 171 million people worldwide. Bridget Wagner, a group leader in pancreatic biology and metabolic disease in the Chemical Biology Program at the Broad Institute, spoke about the past and present of diabetes, as well as her group’s progress towards identifying small molecules that may someday be used to control diabetes.

Wagner reviewed the evolution of diabetes management over the last 3500 years... in less than one hour. While that may seem like a impossible feat, diabetes management regimens hardly changed until 90 years ago with the discovery of insulin –an endocrine hormone produced by pancreatic beta-cells that regulates glucose metabolism in the body. Only one year after its original isolation in 1921, purified insulin was injected to diabetic patients, saving their lives and emerging as the way to manage diabetes.

Although insulin purification methods and forms have changed over the years, administration of insulin via multi-daily injections has proven to be the only successful long-term treatment method for Type I Diabetes –a form of diabetes that is common in children and results from a patient’s immune system accidentally attacking and subsequently killing their own insulin producing beta-cells.

Stepping aside from insulin regimens, Wagner tackles diabetes management from another angle. If beta-cell numbers and function are preserved, then so may insulin production, resulting in the body's proper regulation of glucose metabolism. Wagner's research group aims to identify small molecules that enhance the proliferation of beta-cells, preserve them from dying or cause other pancreatic cell types to produce insulin.

Using a library with over 300,000 small molecule compounds, Wagner’s research has identified several candidates falling into each of these three categories. Currently, these compounds are being examined and adapted to increase their efficacy in cell culture and murine models, with the goal that they may serve as new methods to treat diabetes. The notion of non-injection based treatments made this Midsummer Nights' Science Lecture turn into something more closely resembling a Midsummer Nights' Dream.