AstraZeneca and Harvard Stem Cell Institute Team Up for Diabetes Research

AstraZeneca inked a five-year research deal with Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) for new treatments for diabetes.

The company announced today that it has entered into a five-year research collaboration with HSCI to adapt a technique that creates human beta cells from stem cells for use in screens for AstraZeneca’s compound library in the search for new diabetes treatments. The collaboration also aims to better understand how the function of beta cells declines in diabetes. The companies will make research findings available to the broader scientific community.

The companies did not disclose financial details of the deal, however AstraZeneca did say that it will provide funding for the HSCI research team, led by Professor Doug Melton, as well as establish an in-house team in Mölndal, Sweden, dedicated to the collaboration. Scientists from both AstraZeneca and HSCI will work together to understand the biology behind the loss of human beta cell function and mass in diabetes, and to screen compounds against the cells produced to search for potential new medicines that could restore beta cell activity in diabetic patients.

In type 1 diabetes patients, beta cells are destroyed by an autoimmune response. In order to maintain normal blood glucose levels, patients must regularly administer insulin injections. In type 2 diabetes patients, the beta cells either fail to function properly or their numbers decrease. Human beta cells for research are very limited in number and availability. However, a team led by Professor Melton developed a technique that allows limitless quantities of beta cells to be produced from human induced pluripotent stem cells generated from adult cells, similar in all important respects to those found in healthy individuals.

“We are excited about the potential of this latest collaboration with Harvard University. Professor Melton’s group has made an extraordinary breakthrough in the differentiation of human stem cells into human beta cells and our scientists are extremely excited to be working alongside his team. Harnessing this new technology has the potential to transform the research and development of new treatments for patients with diabetes,” said Marcus Schindler, Head of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases, Innovative Medicines and Early Development, AstraZeneca.

Isaac T. Kohlberg, Head of the Office of Technology Development at Harvard University, said, “AstraZeneca’s commitment to establish and fund this collaboration will help advance the development of new medicines that may ameliorate the need for diabetics to inject insulin, and prevent the numerous, potentially fatal complications of diabetes. This collaboration is an ideal example of how academia and industry should work together to serve the public interest and make a difference in the lives of patients.”

Melton’s recently discovered method to generate billions of glucose-responsive, human beta cells has led to the diabetes startup, Semma Therapeutics, which announced this week that it has secured $44 million in funding and entered into a deal with Novartis Pharmaceuticals. The company is working on engineering human beta cells in the lab that can be transplanted into patients, in order to reverse the underlying cause of type 1 diabetes. Semma plans to design a device allowing for safe introduction of those cells into the body without the need for immunosuppression.

Sources: AstraZeneca plc; Semma Therapeutics

Last updated: 3/25/15; 11:20pm EST

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