Moving Minds Toward a Cure: The Pediatric Diabetes Research Center


San Diego boasts one of the most cutting-edge scientific and biotech communities in the nation, and diabetes doesn’t get overlooked by the local clinical and research organizations. San Diego is home to diabetes-focused corporations like Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Dexcom, patient care groups like Taking Care of Your Diabetes and the Behavioral Diabetes Institute, and innovative research institutions like the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute.

So you can imagine how happy I was to learn recently that we have a new, state-of-the-art research and clinical center joining the mix: the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center (PDRC), under the the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

According to the mission statement, the PDRC aims to “improve the quality of life for those with diabetes through groundbreaking research in the prevention, treatment and cure of type 1 diabetes; and by providing optimal, compassionate clinical care and education,” and so I was quite pleased to get a chance to talk to the program administrator, Shauna McKenna, to learn more about how the PDRC was going to add to the world of diabetes care and research, both in San Diego and beyond.

What is the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center?
The PDRC began as a joint dream for a world-class diabetes research center that could develop the cure for type 1 diabetes. Dr. Alberto Hayek, a leading researcher in islet and stem cell development and former director of the islet center at the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute and David Winkler, a prominent philanthropist, type 1 diabetic, and real-estate developer in the Del Mar, CA area, together planned a new facility that would be equipped with the tools, people, and clinical access necessary for both improved treatment and a cure. They brought their proposal to UCSD, and the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center was born.

In a few years’ time, the PDRC hopes to have its own clinical and lab space, perhaps among the buildings being built right now on the UCSD campus. When the appropriate space is found and acquired, the various researchers and clinical programs led by the PDRC will have a single home, with patient care and novel scientific pursuits living and collaborating side-by-side.

In the meantime, the PDRC will act as a set of shared goals and directives that unite a team of researchers across the UCSD campus and clinical doctors working both on campus and at the nearby Rady’s Children’s Hospital. Each research lab determines its own specific interests and areas of focus, but all are defined by a joint movement towards understanding and altering diabetes, from initial immune system response, to islet cell reaction, to advanced therapies and treatments for complications. The clinical doctors and partnerships will be supporting these goals, working with researchers to design meaningful and hospitable trials.

Who is involved?
The PDRC currently has ten faculty members, and is actively recruiting more. The PDRC Diabetes Care Team, operating for now at the Rady’s Children’s Hospital, includes four of the faculty members, plus an additional nine doctors at Rady’s.

On top of the full-time contributors, the PDRC is also working closely with a number of the big names in diabetes research and care, including national organizations like the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and the Diabetes Research Institute. Local research institutions like the Salk Institute, the Scripps Research Institute, and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology will also be collaborating towards a cure, and even patient-focused groups like Taking Care of Your Diabetes, led by UCSD doctor Steven Edelman, will be on board.

How is the PDRC funded?
The PDRC and its faculty’s research is funded by a combination of philanthropic donations and external grants. Each individual faculty member seeks and receives grants from the National Institutes of Health, the JDRF, the ADA, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and other such organizations.

What is the PDRC currently researching?
(I was thrilled to hear about the varied and promising research led by each member of the PDRC team. Below are some of my personal favorites.)

  • The Hayek Lab: Stem Cells
    Dr. Alberto Hayek’s lab focuses on the transition between stem cells and islet cells, and is currently investigating how single-stranded RNA facilitates the development of insulin-producing islet cells from their stem cell precursors.
  • The Shao Lab: Insulin Action
    Dr. Jianhua Shao’s lab investigates the mechanisms leading to insulin resistance, especially in the presence of obesity. Current research focuses on the gene expression and metabolic function of adiponectin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in modulating insulin sensitivity, and also on the effects of macrophages, cells of the innate immune system, on insulin sensitivity.
  • The Chessler Lab: Beta-Cell Survival and Function
    Dr. Steven Chessler’s lab studies the molecular biology of islet cells, from insulin secretion to cell failure. Researchers are currently examining the similarities between islet cells and neuronal synapses in the brain, hoping to gain a better understanding of the protein structures and functions that are active in both.
  • The Gottschalk Lab: Clinical
    Dr. Michael Gottschalk’s lab is currently running three clinical trials. The first looks at the performance of thymoglobulin, a drug used to reduce the likelihood of rejection of organ transplants, in stopping the progression of autoreactivity among newly diagnosed type 1 diabetics; the second looks at the effects of the Diamyd diabetes vaccine, a drug candidate that promises to teach the immune system’s T-cells tolerance in early onset type 1 diabetics; and the third looks at the safety and efficacy of exenatide, marketed by Amylin Pharmaceuticals as Byetta, in type 2 diabetics between 10 and 16 years of age.

Want to know more?
If you are interested in knowing more about the Pediatric Diabetes Research Center, or if you are interested in getting involved, contact Shaunna McKenna at slmckenna [-at-] ucsd [-dot-] edu.


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