Yanna Lee

Yale researchers have partnered with scientists at the Jackson Laboratory, the University of Connecticut and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to form the Metabolic Research Alliance to study metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.

Milton Wallack, founder of the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Coalition and the Metabolic Research Alliance, said that once the stem cell initiative began, a committee was formed to peer review grant requests for research projects.

“I noticed a paucity in grant requests for projects pertaining to metabolic diseases,” Wallack said. “We were funding amazing projects that would be very meaningful health-wise, but we thought we should fill this void in metabolic disease research.”

According to the World Health Organization, 422 million people worldwide suffered from diabetes in 2014, and obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980. This epidemic is not only a personal health issue but it is also a burden to the health care system because of the required insurance funds to treat chronic illnesses, Wallack said.

Wallack said he brainstormed how to expand the metabolic research field with leading researchers at the UConn and Yale diabetes centers, including Robert Sherwin, the section chief of the Yale endocrinology department.

In May 2014, leading researchers held an initial symposium to explore ways to move more aggressively and collaboratively create cures and treatments. Kevan Herold, professor of immunology and endocrinology and director of the Yale Diabetes Center, said that Wallack wanted to expand the project across the state because this undertaking would require a lot of research and a statewide alliance will allow for more collaborative projects.

After two years of additional symposiums, a conference was held on April 11 and 12 in Farmington, Connecticut, with researchers from Yale, UConn, The Jackson Laboratory and the Weizmann Institute in attendance.

“We invited researchers from the Weizmann Institute because they were doing interesting, break-through work in this area,” Wallack said. “There is so much more progress when you incorporate the best science from the best labs.”

Wallack said that having researchers from various fields will provide “the missing piece” in curative breakthroughs. He said that the alliance has also stimulated the interest of scientists who have done peripheral work to enter the arena of this kind of research, adding that Yale researchers have studied endometrial cells and the possibility of beta-like cell regeneration but until now have not had a framework to apply this work to the metabolic research field.

Because of the range of specialization among the four institutions, the alliance will provide the opportunity to study issues which have not been addressed in regards to metabolic diseases, such as the microbiome — the bacterial makeup in the gut and its influence on disease processes.

Another example of the specialized research the alliance will conduct pertains to the autoimmunity of type 1 diabetes, according to Wallack. Scientists have attempted to recreate beta-like cells to produce insulin, but because the disease is autoimmune, the cells will be destroyed.

Because of participating immunobiologists like Herold, the team will be able to not only incorporate cell biology but also immunotherapy to study the autoimmune components.

The world of immunology is gaining a real interest in metabolism because metabolic pathways regulate the immune system, Herold said.

“Diseases like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes have a strong immunobiological component, and people have begun to consider using immune therapies to treat these metabolic diseases,” he explained.

Marc Lalande, chair of the department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at UConn, is one of the Connecticut researchers who will partner with the Weizmann Institute.

“Weizmann researchers have enormous expertise in their work with mouse cells pertaining to a particular genetic form of obesity,” Lalande said. “My own interest is in genetic disorders that cause obesity.”

The alliance currently focuses on identifying projects, dividing responsibility among institutions and researchers and raising internal funds to kickstart the initiative, according to the researchers.