Research Team to Build a Cellular City to Cure Diabetes


A group of researchers is planning an ambitious project that could have implications for diseases like diabetes: to build a complete model of the pancreatic ß cell.

Ray Stevens, PhD

In the next 5 years, an ambitious group hopes to completely model the pancreatic ß cell, in hopes of developing an unprecedented understanding of how the cell uses glucose to create insulin, and what goes wrong in diseases such as diabetes.

They announced the formation of a team, the Pancreatic Beta Cell Consortium (PBC,) toward the end of March. Ray Stevens, PhD, founder of the consortium and a structural chemist, hopes that not only will the model accelerate medical research on treatments for diabetes, but that it “lays the foundation for people to be able to model neurons, stem cells and other types of cells,” he said in a statement.

The model will not just be a computerized version of a functional cell—the team is using a city as a metaphor for the cell. Like a city, the cell is a hierarchical system, so the group aims to integrate models starting from the atomic level, through the molecular level and up to the organelle level.

“We are starting to understand who the citizens are, what the infrastructure looks like and how the governing hierarchy operates,” co-author Kyle McClary, a PhD candidate at the Dornsife College, said in a statement. “We are trying to distill the cell's fundamental properties into abstract representations that are more approachable.”

In order to achieve such a lofty goal, the group already includes biologists, chemists, structural biologists, computational biologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Since the group also aims to tell the story of the cell, they have also included filmmakers and artists whom they hope will add a new perspective and help to make the science accessible to laypeople and scientists alike.

The team chose to create the model of the ß cell for 2 primary reasons: the cell is known to be involved in diabetes, thus its structure is likely to open doors for many disease treatments, and that it is well-studied. There are a vast amount of data on its parts and functions already available for the researchers to utilize.

Despite the available information, though, the challenge lies in combining all of the available data, which includes imaging, computational, biological, physical, and chemical information, all in to one model. “This is the ultimate modeling problem,” said co-author Andrej Sali, PhD, coauthor and a computational and structural biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

The group is welcoming input, ideas, and data from anyone interested in participating, from doctors treating diabetes to citizen scientists. While the team is working on an open-source data bank where scientists can contribute their own data on the cell, the group’s website requests that anyone interested in getting involved use a contact form to reach out to Kate White, the director of the consortium.

The perspective, “Opportunities and Challenges in Building a Spatiotemporal Multi-scale Model of the Human Pancreatic β Cell,” was published in Cell.

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