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Medical School Gets
Sweet Diabetes Grant

The School of Medicine has been awarded a grant worth more than $15.5 million for diabetes research from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF). The money will go to two centers at the medical school: the JDRF-W.W. Smith Charitable Trust Center for Islet Transplantation and the JDRF Center for Gene Therapy.

The center for islet transportation will receive $8.1 million over the next five years to examine ways of restoring normal insulin production in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (Type 1 diabetes). “We are working on two important strategies,” said Dr. Ali Naji, the J. William White Professor of Surgical Research who serves as the center’s director. “First, we want to make islets less vulnerable to attacks from the body’s immune system and secondly, we are investigating new methods of observing those transplanted cells in action.”

The JDRF Center for Gene Therapy is examining the use of gene therapy to heal wounds, foot ulcers, and diabetic retinopathy (the alterations in the blood vessels of the retina caused by high levels of glucose). “Growth-factor” genes are delivered directly to the wounded tissue, helping it to heal.

“We have gathered a committed group of Penn experts with a clear objective: to develop viral vectors and use gene transfer to pursue many approaches to treatment of complications,” said Dr. James M. Wilson, that center’s director and the John Herr Musser Professor and Chair of Molecular and Cellular Engineering. (See accompanying story for more on Wilson.)

Wilson and the other gene-therapy investigators at the center will also be studying the ability to control gene “expression”—turning the action of a particular gene on and off. Wilson has been working on a “biological insulin pump,” in which a virus vector would deliver the insulin gene into the body, and the patient would activate the gene and switch on the “pump” by taking an oral drug. The process would control the patient’s blood-sugar levels.

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/28/02