While Erica Cai, PhD, began her career in the cancer field, she moved over to diabetes when she was studying for her master’s degree. It was a mitochondrial uncoupling protein that was responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes that attracted her attention. As she continued her investigation into beta cells, she shifted her focus to type 1 diabetes.
Today, Cai and her lab team are exploring ways to protect beta cells for three reasons.
- Protecting beta cells means preventing type 1 diabetes.
- Beta cells are the only cells that secret insulin to circulation.
- They have a limited ability to regenerate.
Cai has used CRISPR screening to find new targets that could help beta cells better protect themselves from immune system attacks. She has already found that deleting a protein coding gene (RNLS – Renalase, FAD Dependent Amine Oxidase) made beta cells resistant to autoimmune killing. This finding was published in Nature Metabolism (“Genome-scale in vivo CRISPR screen identifies RNLS as a target for beta cell protection in type 1 diabetes,” July 27, 2020).
Now, Cai is investigating another target – a transcription factor (TF). Preliminary data is showing that if this TF is removed the beta cell could better resist an immune attack. However, Cai and her team want to ensure that removing one protein doesn’t have downstream consequences. Cai hopes that her work will lead to a new drug therapy that can halt type 1 diabetes progression