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Disease Diabetes
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Diabetes is a life-long disease that affects more than 23 million Americans, and occurs because the body is unable to produce enough insulin, or because our bodies cannot use insulin efficiently. Insulin is necessary for cells to take up glucose to use for energy, and when they cannot do so glucose builds up in the bloodstream. This is dangerous as high blood glucose can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening complications. The two main forms of diabetes are type I and type II, and they have different causes.

In type I diabetes, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas; this is called an autoimmune disease. As a result, the body cannot produce enough insulin to control the level of glucose in the blood. Type I diabetes is usually detected in children and is also known as juvenile diabetes. Although we do not completely understand the cause of type I diabetes, we know that inherited genes and environmental factors play a role in the initiation and the progression of the disease. This form of diabetes can be partly controlled by regularly monitoring blood glucose levels, and by injecting insulin. Over time, however, the inadequate control of blood glucose causes many complications, including heart disease, kidney failure, nerve damage, muscle wasting, and early death.

About 90% of people with diabetes have the second form, type II. In this case, the body may not produce enough insulin, or insulin is produced but cells cannot use it efficiently – this is called insulin resistance. Type II diabetes is becoming increasingly common due to poor diets and insufficient exercise, but it can often be managed by a combination of insulin, medications, and a healthier lifestyle.

There is no cure for diabetes, and research must focus on replacing the insulin-producing cells, stopping the immune system from attacking the new insulin-producing cells, or finding ways to help cells use insulin more efficiently. Torrey Pines Institute scientists are performing research in each of these areas, and are working to find new treatment options for people with diabetes.

Principal Investigators are working on the following challenges in the area of Type I and Type II Diabetes:

  • Understanding how genetic factors control the onset of type I diabetes.
  • Discovering how to grow new insulin-producing cells in the laboratory so they can be transplanted to replace cells destroyed by immune attack.
  • Designing and testing new strategies to re-educate our immune system, so that it no longer recognizes the pancreas as foreign.
  • Understanding the connection between obesity, insulin resistance, and type II diabetes.
  • Understanding how high levels of lipids in the blood impair our cell’s ability to take up glucose and respond to insulin.


Dr. Yang Dai uses animal models of type I diabetes to study the genetic factors that influence the immune attack against insulin-secreting cells. His group focuses on studying genes and pathways that can alter the processing and presentation of self antigens and cause activation of autoreactive T cells. The work may yield new approaches to target islet-specific antigens to induce tolerance and prevent the immune attack. Learn more here…

Dr. Joanna Davies is interested in understanding the cells of the immune system that actively prevent the development of type I diabetes in healthy individuals. These studies will be useful to learn how to re-educate the immune system so that we may intervene to reverse ongoing disease, or to prevent diabetes from progressing in people at early stages of disease. Learn more here…

Dr. Valeria Judkowski and Dr. Clemencia Pinilla are investigating the natural peptide antigens that trigger the CD4 T cell autoimmune attack on the pancreas. Their groups have used animal models of Type I diabetes and the Institute’s peptide libraries to optimize and improve antigen discovery tools that could be used to identify antigens in human type I diabetes, as well as in other autoimmune disorders, and infectious diseases. Learn more here…

Dr. Vipin Kumar is working to understand why the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. His group focuses on the mechanism by which pancreatic antigens trigger different types of immune T cells, and this work may lead to new therapies to prevent these cells from destroying the insulin-producing cells. Learn more here…



Dr. Alan Kleinfeld is investigating how blood levels of free fatty acids (FFA) are regulated by their uptake and release from adipocytes (fat cells). His group is interested in understanding whether the elevated FFA levels may impair the body's ability to regulate blood glucose and to respond to insulin. This work may help identify new drug targets for treating insulin resistance and type II diabetes. Learn more here…

Dr. Fahumiya Samad is interested in the relationship between obesity and the development of type II diabetes, which is a component of the metabolic syndrome. Her group focuses on the contribution of adipose tissue to insulin resistance, using mouse models of obesity to identify metabolic pathways that link adipose tissue inflammation to type II diabetes. The work has the potential to identify new targets for development of therapeutics. Learn more here…