Joslin scientist will examine the roles of specific gut bacterial strains in triggering the autoimmune attack behind the disease.

BOSTON – (January 26, 2017) – Aleksandar Kostic, Ph.D., an assistant investigator at the Joslin Diabetes Center, has received a Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research to support work exploring environmental factors that trigger the autoimmune attack behind type 1 diabetes.

Kostic will use the three-year, $300,000 grant to look at how the gut microbiome (the bacteria that live in our digestive tracts) may play a role in the autoimmune attack.

“Type 1 diabetes is a complex disease with no single cause,” says Kostic, who joined Joslin in 2016 and is also a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. “Individual genetics are among the strongest factors. But just as important, or perhaps more important, are the environmental exposures of the individual at an early age.”

In previous work, Kostic and his colleagues studied gut bacteria in infants at risk of developing type 1 diabetes. They found that these bacteria may create inflammation that helps to activate the autoimmune response against insulin-producing cells in genetically predisposed individuals.

In the upcoming work supported by the Smith Family Foundation grant, the Kostic lab will study gut bacteria from people with type 1 diabetes, and do genomic sequencing of the bacterial strains that are associated most strongly with the disease. 

Next, they will study these bacterial strains in a common mouse model for type 1 disease that has been modified to initially have germ-free guts. For these experiments, the group will design simplified bacterial communities, introduce them into these germ-free mice, and observe whether each bacterial community helps to induce or prevent diabetes.

“This lets us dissect the role of the microbiome in type 1 diabetes, with this simplified system in which we know every microbial gene that is introduced,” Kostic says.

His research will help to reveal the mechanisms by which the microbiome may impact disease. “Targeting these mechanisms therapeutically represents a new path towards the treatment of type 1 diabetes,” he says. “We’re deeply grateful to the Smith Family Foundation for the opportunity to pursue this work.”

“Congratulations to Dr. Kostic on this prestigious Smith Family Foundation award,” said George L. King, M.D., Chief Scientific Officer at Joslin and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “The Foundation’s generosity will provide tremendous support to Dr.  Kostic and Joslin ‘s new effort to understand the exciting possibility that the gut microbiome could be altered to prevent the development of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

Dr. Kostic received his Ph.D. in the program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard Medical School. He conducted his postdoctoral work at the Broad Institute. His research has earned him several distinctions including a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship, the Lawrence H. Summers Fellowship, and a spot on the annual Forbes Magazine “30 Under 30” list.

* * * 

About the Smith Family Foundation

The Smith Family Awards Program for Excellence in Biomedical Research was created in 1991 by the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, which is based in Newton, MA. The mission of the Awards Program is to launch the careers of newly independent biomedical researchers with the ultimate goal of achieving medical breakthroughs. Since 1992, the Program has funded 157 scientists and has provided $31.1 million in research support. The Medical Foundation at Health Resources in Action, based in Boston, administers the award on behalf of the Smith Family Foundation.