SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers are receiving $2.2 million of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to test a potentially life-changing treatment for millions with Type 1 diabetes.

The two researchers, Dr. Haval Shirwan and Dr. Esma Yolcu, said this treatment is designed to stop the immune system from rejecting insulin-producing cell clusters transplanted from another person’s pancreas.

“What has been shown to be extremely effective is islet transplantation, pancreas transplantation, meaning that we could take pancreas from a deceased individual, prepare those cells, what we call islets that make insulin, and those islets can be infused into an individual who suffers from this brittle diabetes,” Shirwan said.

This type of transplantation also comes with some downsides.
Shirwan said patients are required to take lifelong medicine to control rejection. He said the medicine isn’t always effective and there can be major side effects.

“Infections because you’re suppressing your immune system, high incidents of cancer, and various other complications,” Shirwan said.

For the last 20 years, Shirwan said, both he and Yolcu have been trying to research an approach that could trick the immune system into recognizing the lifesaving cells as something helpful.

“These two proteins, we simply use them as a tool to deliver two different signals to the immune system to tell the immune system that this is something useful,” Shirwan said.

Yolcu said by working so hard on this potential new treatment, they hope it gives patients some hope.

“My dream is that before I leave research, to see that this patient population they are getting a safe treatment,” Yolcu said. “Treatment that is available to everyone, whether financially they are capable to have it, or not.”

The researchers said the Department of Defense grant began this month and will run through 2025.