The NIH has awarded $6.9 million to the Diabetes Research and Training Center (DRTC) based at the University of Chicago. This funding renewal marks more than four decades of research at the DRTC, making the center one of the longest running NIH-funded diabetes research programs.
The award will fund cutting edge research on diabetes development and progression at both the University of Chicago and other local institutions, including Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). The DRTC enables investigators to tackle questions at the forefront of discovery in diabetes by providing access to the latest intellectual and physical inventions and networking hubs that facilitate new collaborations, continuing a long history of diabetes research.
“The University of Chicago has a history of innovation and we’ve been leaders in the area of diabetes research going back to the early 1900s,” said Raghu Mirmira, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine and principal investigator of the grant renewal for the DRTC.
This spirit of innovation reflects the primary goal of the DRTC: to facilitate new discoveries in diabetes research focused on understanding the development of diabetes and its complications and translating these findings into strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. The research conducted by the DRTC seeks to answer basic science questions, like how the islet cells that produce insulin function, to questions more focused on applying these innovations to patient treatment, such as how sleep stabilizes blood sugar. Three major research cores at the University of Chicago serve to facilitate collaboration across research areas. Research focuses span the breadth of this complex disease, with scientists focused on understanding the biology and immunology of islet cells, regulation of obesity and metabolism, genetics and genomics of diabetes, and finally clinical and translational studies of diabetes and obesity.
A long history of diabetes research
The University of Chicago has a long history of cutting-edge diabetes research. Many of the leaders in the field trained or have been members of the DRTC, including former Biological Sciences Division Dean Kenneth Polonsky, MD. In the early 1900s, a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago by the name of Robert Russell Bensley was the first to describe the structure of pancreatic islet cells, necessary for the later isolation of insulin by Frederick Banting in 1923. But even as early as 1911, Ernest Lyman Scott, a master's student at University of Chicago, described how injections of extracts from the pancreas could lower glucose, the first biological indication of the existence of insulin predating Banting’s discovery by 12 years. Since these discoveries, scientists at the University of Chicago have gone on to make seminal discoveries in insulin structure, functional imaging of cell function in diabetes, and genetic mutations that are associated with the disease.
Mirmira was trained as a diabetes researcher at the DRTC in the 1980s, where he did research that would later pave the way for the first rapid-acting insulin analog, Lispro. He was recruited back to the DRTC in 2020, and, in addition to his research efforts in the biology of islet beta cells, he oversees the dissemination and exchange of knowledge within the University and between all the institutions affiliated with the DRTC. His work was recently honored by the American Diabetes Association with the Albert Renold Award, which is presented to an individual whose career is distinguished by outstanding achievements in the training and mentorship of diabetes research scientists and in the development of communities of scientists to enhance diabetes research.
Putting the ‘T’ in DRTC
The DRTC was built around the concept of supporting and training the next generation of diabetes researchers. The research cores provide technical services and training to researchers, but the overall mission of the center is to go beyond this technical support and foster collaboration, and in this way promote innovation. The DRTC’s Pilot program provides funding for new investigators to start preliminary research, enabling them to apply for their own grants. Additionally, the DRTC runs an Enrichment program that includes seminar series and the Annual Diabetes Day Symposium in May, serving as more “hubs” to spark collaboration and innovation.
“It’s not just buying a cool new instrument, storing it in a room, and then hoping people will use it. That type of strategy doesn’t really work,” Mirmira said. “It's about bringing new people into the field who have great ideas and giving them the resources to pursue them.”
In the spirit of bringing fresh ideas together, in recent years the DRTC has expanded to include investigators at other local universities. This fosters greater collaboration across institutions, creating lasting reverberations throughout the greater Chicago community. DRTC co-director Graeme Bell, PhD, the Kovler Family Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, started a push for this expansion when he took over the center, and Mirmira plans to continue this effort. So far, two core satellites have been established at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University. Mirmira hopes that this expansion will bring in new ideas and foster collaboration among researchers that may not have had a place to exist before.
“We can’t bring everybody to the University, but, in a way, we can bring the University to them,” he said.
Mirmira said a new direction of the DRTC is to find people who might not consider themselves diabetes researchers and encourage them to consider possible connections between their research and diabetes.
“Diabetes touches almost every disease. If you have diabetes, you increase your risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease,” he said. “So, if you know some cellular pathways that might impact cancer, how does that affect diabetes?”
Bringing in new people and fresh ideas is just the beginning, and the DRTC hopes to regrow diabetes research in Chicago in a way that reflects the top priorities of diabetes research today, both in terms of modern technologies and how people are impacted by the disease. More than ever, the DRTC is focused on this bench to bedside pipeline, or how basic science ideas from the lab can make their way to real patients and enact meaningful change. Given that diabetes is on the rise both globally and in our local communities, future research at the DRTC will not only build upon the long history of diabetes research at the University of Chicago but will make lasting changes within the greater Chicago community.