Uncovering novel regulators of beta cell genesis, growth and function

To date, the only successful approach for curing type 1 diabetes is to replace the insulin-producing beta cells that have been destroyed by the disease. Pancreas- and islet-cell transplantation are promising therapeutic strategies; however, scarcity of transplantable tissue has limited their widespread use. One way to produce enough beta cells to cure type 1 diabetes is to determine how the cells develop normally within the embryo and apply this knowledge to the regeneration of beta cells in the culture dish or directly in people with diabetes.

Using human and mouse model systems, Dr. Francis Lynn’s research aims to enhance our understanding of normal regulatory pathways that govern pancreas- and insulin-producing pancreatic beta cell genesis and function. The hope is that a greater understanding will enable cell-based approaches for treating and curing diabetes. Lynn’s long-term objective is to understand how regulatory DNA-binding proteins called transcription factors drive beta cell formation and function. This research specifically focuses on one member of the Sox gene family of transcription factors named Sox4. Preliminary data suggest that Sox4 is instrumental in governing both the birth of beta cells and their replication later in life. These observations place Sox4 as a novel and previously unappreciated key regulator of beta cell biology.

Lynn hopes that a thorough characterization of the pathways through which Sox4 regulates beta cell formation and function will inform novel approaches for generation of large numbers of functional beta cells from human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells.