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Smart artificial beta cells could lead to new diabetes treatment

Fluorescence image of the artificial beta cells
Fluorescence image of the artificial beta cells. (Gu Lab, UNC-NC State)

CHAPEL HILL, NC – Treating type 1 diabetes and some cases of type 2 diabetes has long required painful and frequent insulin injections or a mechanical insulin pump for insulin infusion. But researchers from the University of North Carolina and NC State have now developed what could be a much more patient-friendly option: artificial cells that automatically release insulin into the bloodstream when glucose levels rise.

These "artificial beta cells" (AβCs) mimic the functions of the body's natural glucose-controllers, the insulin-secreting beta cells of the pancreas. The loss or dysfunction of these cells causes type 1 diabetes and many cases of type 2 diabetes. The idea is that the AβCs could be subcutaneously inserted into patients, which would be replaced every few days, or by a painless and disposable skin patch.

As the researchers report in Nature Chemical Biology, a single injection of the AβCs into diabetic mice lacking beta cells quickly normalized the animals' blood glucose levels and kept those levels normal for up to five days.

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FDA approves eculizumab for generalized myasthenia gravis

This study was done in the TraCS' CTRC (Manisha Chopra, study coordinator).

UNC's James F. Howard, MD, was the lead investigator in the clinical trial that led to FDA approval.

James F. Howard Jr., MD
James F. Howard Jr., MD

Yesterday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved eculizumab as a treatment for adult patients with generalized myasthenia gravis (gMG) who are anti-acetylcholine receptor (AChR) antibody-positive.

James F. Howard Jr., MD, Distinguished Professor of Neuromuscular Disease, professor of neurology, medicine and allied health, and chief of the Neuromuscular Disorders Section in the UNC School of Medicine, was lead investigator of the Phase 3 REGAIN study, which helped lead to FDA approval of the drug for the treatment of this chronic and debilitating neuromuscular disorder. It is the first new FDA-approved treatment for patients with gMG in more than 60 years.

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The Self-Made Scientist

Andrew Hinton was working in the shipyards around Norfolk, Virginia, when his young daughter was diagnosed with severe food allergies. That diagnosis, as stressful as it was, gave him the passion to change the course of his life, which led him to the UNC School of Medicine where he is enrolled in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences Program and beginning work towards earning his PhD.

Andrew Hinton

Like a lot of young men from Virginia's Tidewater region, Andrew Hinton found himself working in the shipyards. And like a lot of those men, it was practicality not passion that led him there.

Hinton was looking for a way out of a bind. His grandmother, his anchor, his support, had recently passed away. All of a sudden, his college classes became a secondary concern. He needed to make some money. So he enrolled in an apprenticeship program typically offered to recent high school grads.

"They told me if I did the apprenticeship I could work and they would also pay for me to finish school," Hinton said.

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Thanks to a UNC research project, she can walk again

As UNC geneticist Jonathan Berg gears up to lead a $9.7-million renewal of the NCGENES project, we look at a story from the original study and how it changed the fortunes of a woman from Goldsboro, NC.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – When she was six, a mysterious ailment caused Elizabeth Davis to walk on her toes. Kids began making fun of her. Doctors couldn't figure out why she walked like this. Then her condition got worse. She began using crutches. Eventually, she didn't want to leave the house and would rely on a wheel chair. She went on a diagnostic odyssey for decades and her condition never improved despite various treatments and even surgeries until she came to Jane Fan, MD, a neurologist at UNC who thought Elizabeth's condition had an underlying genetic component that typical diagnostics couldn't find. Fan thought Elizabeth might benefit from enrolling in NCGENES – North Carolina Clinical Genomic Evaluation by NextGen Exome Sequencing.

This was a four-year $6.4-million NIH-funded initiative led by Jim Evans, MD, PhD, the Bryson Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Medicine. Researchers sequenced the genomes of hundreds of people to develop best practices for diagnostic tools, some of which clinical geneticists now use to help guide health care for North Carolinians and people around the world.

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Michelle Maclay, Communications Director