The end of insulin injections and pumps? 13 May 2021 Professor Ann Simpson, a biochemistry professor from the University of Technology Sydney, hopes so. Thanks to a $150,000 Type 1 Diabetes Millennium Award Professor Simpson and her team have studied the possibility of creating an artificial insulin-producing cell to replace the beta cells that are destroyed in the autoimmune response that leads to the development of type 1 diabetes. Beta cells in the pancreas are responsible for producing and storing insulin. Insulin plays an important role in converting glucose (sugar) into energy. In people living with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells are destroyed by the body’s immune system, so the pancreas stops making insulin. Professor Simpson has been exploring the possibility of using other cells, from outside the pancreas, and genetically altering them so that they can also store and secrete insulin. “What we’re trying to do is engineer an artificial beta cell. Because the beta cells are destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes, we can’t just put the insulin gene back into the beta cells because they don’t exist, so we must find another cell type to engineer. We’ve been working on liver cells for many years because they have similar glucose sensing to pancreatic cells,” she said. With funding from the Millennium Award, Professor Simpson was able to use a humanised mouse, a mouse that has functioning human genes, tissues, cells or organs, to see if it was possible to modify a liver cell to become more like a cell found in the pancreas. Professor Simpson says receiving the award was critical to her research. “Getting enough funding to carry on with the research is the biggest challenge,” she said. “With the smaller grants you can’t really employ somebody for any length of time, but you can employ somebody with the funds from the Millennium Award.” She says it is becoming harder for Australian researchers to find funding for their work. “I think it’s a shame that the harsh funding environment is turning good researchers off continuing in research,” she said. Even so, she says Australian researchers are leading the charge for finding a cure for diabetes. “I think Australian’s punch well above their weight in the type of work and the calibre of their work. There’s a lot more funding in places like the United States and often we make advances that they don’t. Australians are doing well, but they could do better if they had more funding,” she said. Professor Simpson is hopeful her research will one day eliminate the need for insulin injections altogether. “What we’re trying to engineer is a one-time cure, it’s not something that needs to be repeated. People would be relieved from injecting insulin and hopefully the chronic complications that come with diabetes.” She says it will likely be close to ten years before this is possible, and only if the research holds up in studies of larger animals, and then humans. “You can’t always predict. Sometimes unfortunately you can do things in rats and mice and try and do them in humans and you don’t get the same result,” she said. Professor Simpson hopes younger researchers are inspired to join an area of research she herself has found so rewarding. “I think it’s a very exciting area of research, it’s an important disease to cure and I’ve found over my career it’s fascinating, some of the work that I’ve done. I’m very grateful for the support Diabetes Australia has given me over the years.” If you would like to help others like Professor Ann Simpson find a cure for diabetes and donate here.