NIH awards $70M grant to USF diabetes research

The University of South Florida has secured a $69.9 million grant to complete long-term research into the origins of Type 1 diabetes.

The award from the National Institutes of Health will support research tracking the health of 8,676 individuals from infancy through age 15, with the aim of identifying environmental triggers of the disease. This latest phase will look at how puberty affects those with genetic risk for the disease causing insulin dependence.

“Hopefully it will contribute to our overall understanding of the causes of [Type 1] diabetes,” says Distinguished University Health Professor Jeffrey Krischer, PhD, principal investigator of the The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in The Young consortium, known as TEDDY.

Funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases “allows for a coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach that will lead to a better understanding of the disease with the hope of developing new strategies to prevent, delay, or reverse type 1 diabetes,” says Beena Akolkar, PhD, project scientist for TEDDY at NIDDK, in a written statement.

As head of USF’s Health Informatics Institute, which is part of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, Krischer has led the research into the environmental links to Type 1 diabetes since 2004. USF spearheaded the study and serves as its Data Coordinating Center.

Six clinics worldwide are in charge of collecting data from participants, with three clinics in Europe and three in the United States, Krischer says. The closest full clinic site is in Atlanta, but a satellite office operates in Gainesville. 

HII is located in USF Research Park at 3650 Spectrum Blvd.

“We routinely have students who work within my group, which is the Health Informatics Institute,” he says. “We do have a number of our own staff who work fulltime who are pursuing advance degrees at the university.”

Some $28 million of the grant money is earmarked for expenditure during the first year and includes subcontracting for lab work. Subsequent spending is projected at $15 million, just under $14 million, and $12 million for years two, three, and four, respectively, Krischer says.

The entire $350 million study will produce a huge database that will seek to explain how environmental factors may be increasing the incidence of Type 1 diabetes, a disease resulting from the body’s inability to manufacture sufficient insulin. The rate of occurrence rose in youths under 20 between 2002 and 2012, according to an NIH-funded study.

“We don’t really think that genetics explains this increase by itself,” says Krischer, who earned his PhD from Harvard University. “There must be some environmental factors that interact with genetics.”

TEDDY screened more than 425,000 to choose members of the cohort. 

“We tested them to see whether they had high-risk genetic markers,” he explains. “We approached the families when we found a child that met those criteria to see if they would be willing to participate.”

Researchers collect blood samples every three months for all participants during the first four years, then every six months after that if they showed no signs of Type 1 diabetes. They also collect urine and stool samples, as well as drinking water samples during the course of the study.

Through a diary called the TEDDY book, researchers keep tabs on childhood illnesses and viruses, environmental exposures, and diet, he explains.

The database is a potential resource for those studying food allergies, asthma, and obesity as well, Krischer points out.

USF has been a hub for Type 1 diabetes research, and TEDDY is one of many studies it coordinates, he adds. It was heralded in Nature’s June 17 edition for its work with viruses and autoimmune-related diabetes.

Krischer also is director the TrialNet Coordinating Center, which looks at intervention; a TrialNet study was recognized in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2019 for showing how the disease can be delayed two or more years through medication. 

Through the TEDDY research, USF has identified two forms of Type 1 diabetes in children -- one which appears more tightly connected to viruses, and occurs usually at a very young age. It disappears as they grow. The second form appears later, seems to linger, and appears to have different risk factors.

Thus far, the research also has linked Type 1 diabetes risk to maternal stress during pregnancy. Early supplementation with probiotics has had a protective effect.

So are they close to a breakthrough?

“Our focus is primarily in understanding the cause and not the treatment,” Krischer says.

What’s next?

“I think there will always be questions that come next,” he says. “Our goal is for it to lead to new treatments. Then the big effort will be to show that those treatments are efficacious.”
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Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune