First paper published in friendly competition demonstrates that some insulin-producing cells remain active after decades of autoimmune attack

BOSTON – August 12, 2010 – Two years ago, philanthropist Thomas J. Beatson, Jr. asked four Joslin Diabetes Center scientists to present him with compelling proposals for research on type 1 diabetes. Inspired by all four, in January 2009 he decided to help fund each, splitting a $1-million gift evenly between the four labs. An avid cyclist who has cycled more than 100,000 miles, Beatson added a rider to his gift: The first funded researcher to publish a paper with a significant outcome in a peer-reviewed journal would win the Beatson Challenge—and a special yellow cycling jersey. This week Hillary Keenan, Ph.D., a Joslin research associate, and her colleagues grabbed the jersey.

Keenan is lead author on a paper published in the journal Diabetes and built on Joslin 50-Year Medals, which Joslin has been awarding to people with insulin-dependent diabetes since 1972. 

In 2005, Joslin launched the Joslin 50-Year Medalist Study, which examines this select cohort to discover protective factors for their long-term survival.

In type 1 diabetes, the body relentlessly attacks and destroys its own insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. But the new study firmly establishes that some of these cells endure for many decades in some Medalists—offering clues to potential treatments for preserving and even restoring the crucial cell population, says George L. King, M.D., senior author on the paper, Joslin’s chief scientific officer and head of the Dianne Nunnally Hoppes Laboratory for Diabetes Complications. 

“I think it’s really wonderful that Hillary has been studying the 50-Year Medalists, and I’m thrilled that her paper is published,” says Beatson, who himself has lived with diabetes for 67 years. 

Important research funded by Beatson continues in the Medalist project and in the labs of T. Keith Blackwell, M.D., Ph.D.; Gordon C. Weir, M.D.; and Howard A. Wolpert, M.D.  Each lab received $250,000 over two years.

Work led by Dr. Blackwell is studying mechanisms that allow cells to maintain a "pluripotent" state that enables them to become a variety of cell types, including beta cells. 

Dr. Weir is supervising investigations to uncover the processes by which pancreatic precursor cells derived from embryonic stem cells and other sources mature into fully active beta cells when transplanted into mice. 

A team directed by Dr. Wolpert is developing software for analyzing continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) data to identify problem areas in diabetes management and determine optimal alarms for out-of-target glucose measurements.

“Mr. Beatson is a long-time friend of Joslin,” says Michael P. Sullivan, Joslin Senior Vice President. “He is a model donor and we are thankful for his continued generosity and commitment to our mission to cure diabetes.”