Harvard Stem Cell Institute Receives Grant from His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Help Advance Type 1 Diabetes Research

8 February 2022
Abu Dhabi, February 8 2022 – His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has announced a financial grant towards the Douglas Melton Laboratory at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, to bolster research focusing on accelerating gene editing approaches for pancreatic beta cell replacement therapy.

According to the World Health Organization, about 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, and 1.6 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence of diabetes have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.

His Highness’ global health initiative, Reaching the Last Mile, works to end diseases and strengthen health systems. To encourage progress in the disease elimination agenda, Reaching the Last Mile supports the development of innovative research and technology. This commitment to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is another step in the initiative’s long-standing ethos of forging enduring relationships that work to achieve sustainable change, backed by a belief in building a future that ensures stability, promotes dignity and encourages inclusion for all.

“The promising results we’ve seen with stem cell-derived islet cells could deliver a life-changing therapy for people who suffer from the relentless life-long burden of type 1 diabetes. These results were possible due to the long-term effort of students and our team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute to convert human pluripotent stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells, hence making an inexhaustible supply of implantable cells,” said Dr. Douglas Melton, who is the Xander University Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University and the Co-Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Dr. Melton continued: “This work has been further advanced by the biotech industry to industrialize the process and test the results in a clinical trial, the first results from which were recently reported and are quite encouraging.  The next challenge for us is to protect the transplanted beta cells from the recipient’s immune rejection. If our strategies are successful this will lead to a future where beta cell therapy becomes the standard treatment for patients with diabetes.”

“In the United Arab Emirates we strongly believe in the value of collaboration and advancement. This commitment to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is an opportunity to join their mission to develop breakthrough advances in medicine,” said His Highness Sheikh Theyab Bin Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court. “It is only through daring innovation that we can find new solutions to critical issues and help fulfill our commitment to advancing health and improving life for people around the globe.”

This collaboration will also provide an opening to two Emirati research fellows to join the Douglas Melton Lab, with the opportunity to take part in research and work to develop a breakthrough cure for diabetes.

Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, Executive Director of the Abu Dhabi Bone Marrow Transplant program at the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Center, added: “The opportunity for two Emiratis to join the Melton Lab as research fellows will be a cultural and academic enrichment to all those involved. For the selected individuals to not only partake in this research, but also learn from the Lab and be under the sponsorship of a principal investigator will be an invaluable experience. We are looking forward to appointing the best individuals from our talented pool of academics, who we hope can help the team accelerate their research in finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.”

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the absence of insulin-producing beta cells, which are destroyed by the immune system through mechanisms that are still not known. While patients can manage diabetes, there is currently no cure. The first milestone project to be funded under the commitment of His Highness will be making beta cells that evade immune elimination. Further milestones include identifying the immune cells responsible for rejecting transplanted stem cell (SC)-derived beta cells, which will allow the ability to pinpoint the immune cells that start and continue the immune attack and devise ways to eliminate them, and finally, modeling SC-islets for human transplantation. This ambitious program will allow SC-islets to survive and function for years following transplantation into diabetics, effectively curing them of the disease.

The research program is further headlined by JDRF, the leading global organization funding type 1 diabetes (T1D) research, who in 2021 launched the JDRF Center of Excellence in New England, a cross-institutional collaboration between leading Massachusetts-based experts.

Together with strategic partners around the globe, JDRF accelerates T1D cures through initiatives that encourage collaboration, inspire innovation, leverage resources, and engage emerging talent. The JDRF Centers of Excellence elevate these efforts, serving as central pillars of JDRF’s broader strategy to pursue cures for T1D.

Esther Latres, Assistant Vice President of Research at JDRF, said: “Beta-cell replacement therapy is at the forefront of potential cures for type 1 diabetes and a flagship program at JDRF. JDRF is appreciative of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi’s support towards the scientific efforts of the JDRF Center of Excellence and Dr. Melton. We welcome the new research fellows and look forward to advancing breakthrough strategies to protect highly functional insulin-producing cells from immune rejection.”

To mark the launch of this relationship, a virtual seminar will was held on February 7th 2022, highlighting the work being pursued through the grant, as well as highlighting the value of the fellowship to the wider ecosystem. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute seminar featured Dr. Melton, as well as representatives from HSCI and the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Center.