Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes

Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes, an affiliate of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin Research Institute, is one of the few national centers that conducts cutting-edge pediatric diabetes research.

Type 1 diabetes results from the loss of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. Doctors and scientists do not yet know the actual cause of type 1 diabetes, but dysregulation of the immune system is thought to perpetuate the disease process. However, knowledge of what factors underlie and trigger type 1 diabetes will lead to the development of effective preventions in those at risk and long-lasting cures in those with established disease.

We know that like cancer and many other diseases, type 1 diabetes is a complex disease. This means it develops from the interaction of multiple genetic and environmental factors that affect of the immune system and the pancreatic beta cells. A central focus of the McGee Center is to harness genetics and genomics tools to better answer questions about type 1 diabetes pathogenesis at both the molecular and cellular levels. These questions include:

  • Which genes play a role in diabetes?
  • Where are those genes eliciting their effect? At the level of the immune system, the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, or elsewhere?
  • How do those genes function in a person without diabetes versus one who may be at high risk for developing the disease?
  • How does diet, normal bacterial inhabitants of the body, and pathogens such as viruses influence type 1 diabetes development?

The center resides at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and The Medical College of Wisconsin, a unique multidisciplinary and collaborative environment for clinicians, immunologists, molecular biologists and statisticians to make important discoveries for diabetes care, prevention and cure. The Diabetes Program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin is one of the largest in the country, serving more than 1,700 children with type 1 and type 2 diabetes and their families.

New discoveries that can be translated into clinical practice require participation of patients and their families. Over the past decade, the center’s investigators have collected blood samples, genetic material and clinical histories on more than 500 families with diabetes, following many subjects for years. Few centers in the world have gathered such a resource to track the development and onset of diabetes in a previously healthy child.

Research highlights

Biomarkers

Inflammation associated with diabetes used to be difficult to detect because investigators lacked sensitive enough tools. Today, a blood test created by researchers in the Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes can detect diabetes as early as seven years before onset — leaving an open window for early intervention. The blood test identifies inflammation associated with type 1 diabetes through a unique genomic fingerprint, a discovery that offers insight into the pathways responsible for type 1 diabetes. The fingerprint will be useful in identifying at-risk children earlier in the disease process and offers hope for earlier treatment.

Genetics

Human genetic studies have identified many “candidate” genes that may contribute to the development of type 1 diabetes. However, researchers are limited in their ability to directly analyze the function of these genes in humans because of the accessibility of certain cells and tissues in our bodies, so researchers generate novel rodent models to specifically ask if and how these “candidate” genes function in the immune system and pancreatic beta cells.

Martin Hessner, PhD is the director of the Max McGee National Research Center for Juvenile Diabetes.