Seven research teams with fresh approaches to solving the riddle of type 1 diabetes have received funding through an initiative that first tapped the creativity of Harvard community members just over a year ago.
In February 2010 the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center, known as Harvard Catalyst, launched a crowdsourcing experiment called the Ideation Challenge. Some 40,000 faculty, staff, and students, along with the general public, were invited to answer a simple question: What do we not know to cure type 1 diabetes? A panel of experts reviewed 190 suggestions and zeroed in on a dozen outstanding responses—some of them from nonexperts, including a Harvard College student and an HMS human resources manager. Contest winners each received $2,500 and agreed to release their ideas and intellectual property to Harvard.
In November, the Harvard Institute of Translational Immunology, or HITI, solicited proposals for research to explore several of the winning ideas. From a pool of 31 entries, seven were deemed most worthy of funding. The pilot grant program, supported with $1 million from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is HITI’s first effort to convene multidisciplinary translational and clinical investigators from across Harvard to study immune-mediated diseases.
According to HITI’s codirectors, Arlene Sharpe ’82, the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology at HMS, and Laurence Turka, an HMS lecturer on medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the goal of these seven projects is threefold: to better understand the origins of immune-mediated diseases; to formulate immune-based assays to support human clinical trials and improve diagnostics; and, ultimately, to develop novel therapies.
Most of the winning entries involve the creation of new multidisciplinary teams that introduce investigators to the study of type 1 diabetes. Pilot projects will explore strategies for testing the therapeutic potential of populations of a particular immune cell; synthetically producing small sets of proteins to measure whether they might be recognized by antibodies in people with diabetes; identifying genetic biomarkers that may predict the disease before its onset; employing nanomaterials in ways that help the immune system inhibit the development of insulin-producing cells; engineering cells to act as blood glucose monitors; using molecular biology and microfabrication techniques to build highly sensitive, autoantibody-detection devices; and developing ways to convert specific cells in the pancreas into fully functioning, insulin-releasing cells to replace destroyed cells.