Eli Lilly has signed an agreement with the US-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to fund early-stage research into regenerative medicine for type 1 diabetes.

The agreement will support a three-year, US$1.4 million preclinical research programme to be led by Dr Pedro Herrera of the University of Geneva. The researchers will look at whether insulin production in type 1 diabetes can be restored by prompting the body to regenerate insulin-producing beta cells, either by growing existing cells or by creating new beta cells through reprogramming.

If a therapeutic were developed that allowed for the regeneration of beta cells, it could potentially eliminate the need for insulin, Lilly and the JDRF noted.

Previous research by Dr Herrera has shown that alpha cells in the pancreas can spontaneously, and without genetic manipulation, convert into beta cells – which “suggests that alpha cell reprogramming could be a viable strategy for regenerating beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes”, they added.

Dr Herrera will collaborate with Lilly researchers in an effort to understand better these findings and translate them into potential drug targets or even new therapies. Previous attempts to reprogramme non-beta cells into insulin-producing cells without genetic manipulation have not proved an easy route to new therapies for type 1 diabetes, observed Patricia Kilian, director of JDRF’s regeneration programme.

Last month, Lily stepped up its efforts to develop innovative treatments for diabetes through a multi-million dollar strategic alliance with Boehringer Ingelheim that involves reciprocal rights to some of the companies’ late-stage compounds for the disease.