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Credit: Zach Sheldon

The National Institute of Health recently awarded Penn Medicine a $12 million grant to fund a  new program to study the human pancreas and type 1 diabetes in unprecedented detail.

The Human Pancreas Analysis Program, led by Penn Medicine professors Ali Naji and Klaus Kaestner, will bring together researchers from multiple disciplines at Penn to analyze the human pancreas. 

The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, a key hormone that allows glucose — the body’s fuel — to enter the cells. Without insulin, the human body fails to monitor the level of glucose in the body and cannot function properly.

An essential part of the program involves the procurement of organ tissue from deceased donors who were highly susceptible to or diagnosed with type 1 diabetes . The tissue will then be analyzed with state-of-the-art technology by various scientists in the team.

“What we are doing with the human pancreas analysis program is a unique opportunity,” Dr. Naji said. “[The NIH] funded us to establish this program to procure this relevant, rare, and important human tissue for the cause of type 1 diabetes.”

“This comprehensive program promises to unravel the earliest events that lead the immune system to destroy the insulin producing cells in the body, and lead to novel treatments aimed to prevent the earliest manifestations of the disease in at-risk individuals,” Dr. Kaestner said.

The data gathered from the program will be shared with the diabetes research community worldwide through a database developed by Professor Jason Moore from the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics.

“I really want [researchers] to innovate using this data, complementing it with their data, to gain insight into a very important but complex disease process,” Dr. Naji said.

The program will collaborate with researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Florida; those institutions will mostly be responsible for the procurement of the pancreas tissue.

“We are very fortunate to work with the two leaders at the [Penn] team,” Dr. Mingder Yang of the University of Florida said. “Dr. Naji and Dr. Kaestner are very prestigious investigators in the field, so we feel very lucky to be able to work with them and move the field forward.”