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May 18, 2000

Pitt gets $10 million for diabetes research center

The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International (JDF) has awarded a $10 million grant to Pitt and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to establish a research center for gene therapy approaches to curing Type 1 diabetes.

The grant and establishment of the JDF Center were expected to be announced at a news conference this morning at Children's Hospital.

The center will bring together, for the first time, world-renowned experts on diabetes, gene therapy, immunology and transplantation. Their common goal will be finding a cure for diabetes through islet cell transplantation and genetic engineering.

Most of the center's research projects will focus on making islet cell transplants viable for young patients. Islet cells are located in the pancreas and produce insulin. In people with Type 1 (also known as juvenile) diabetes, the body's immune system malfunctions and destroys islet cells.

The JDF Center's goals are to develop new gene therapy techniques that will increase the supply of islet cells available for transplantation and to protect transplanted islet cells from immune system attack.

For at least the center's first three years, research and testing will be on laboratory animals. Eventually, investigators expect that findings from these projects will form the basis of clinical trials with humans.

Six of the seven projects at the JDF Center will use ex vivo gene therapy — that is, cells will be taken from a living animal, treated with genetic material, then returned to the animal. In a project to prevent diabetic nerve damage, gene therapy will be used in vivo, meaning that genetic material will be introduced directly into a living animal.

Massimo Trucco, chief of the immunogenetics division and Hillman Professor of Immunology at Children's Hospital and Pitt's School of Medicine, is director of the new JDF Center. Co-directors are Thomas E. Starzl, professor of surgery at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute and Pitt's medical school, and Joseph C. Glorioso, professor and chairperson of the medical school's Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry.

More than 1 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes. It can occur at any age, but most commonly is diagnosed in childhood. Because their pancreases produce little or no insulin, persons with Type 1 diabetes must take multiple insulin injections each day to survive.

JDF is the world's No. 1 nonprofit, nongovernmental funder of diabetes research. It was founded in 1970 by parents of children with diabetes.

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