Aug. 14--Working to cure a disease that plagues more than one in 10 American adults, researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and those at pharmaceutical company Pfizer will begin collaborating to find a new way to combat obesity-related diabetes.
The three-year agreement, which the parties announced Tuesday, combines Sanford-Burnham's expertise in disease biology and muscle metabolism with Pfizer's expertise in drug discovery, said Deborah Robison, spokeswoman for the research institute in Lake Nona.
Step one for the scientists at Sanford Burnham will be to identify the disruptive agents that cause obesity-related diabetes, said Stephen Gardell, senior director of scientific resources at Sanford-Burnham.
In the case of diabetes, those agents are invariably proteins, he said.
Step two is to find small medical molecules that can take aim at these disruptive proteins and make them behave. Then new drug therapies can be developed.
Comparing the proteins to a lock, Gardell said, "We need to find the right molecular key that will interact with them in just the right way and get them to function normally."
What intrigues some onlookers about this research "is that they're coming at diabetes a completely different way," said Dr. Steve Smith, scientific director for the Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes in Orlando.
"We don't need another insulin, or another knockoff diabetes drug. What we need are new models and new ways of thinking about diabetes," said Smith. "This research takes a radically new pathway."
The research will take place almost entirely at Sanford-Burnham's Lake Nona campus in Medical City, Gardell said. The nonprofit science institute also has a campus in San Diego.
"Diabetes presents an enormous public health burden," said Tim Rolph, head of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases research at Pfizer. "There is an acute need to translate innovative science into potential new medicines for people living with this debilitating disease."
Diabetes cost Americans $245 billion in medical costs and lost productivity in 2012, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In Florida, the rate of diabetes has doubled in 15 years, to more than 10 percent of adults, according to America's Health Rankings.
The rise in diabetes is one of the most serious fallouts of the nation's obesity epidemic.
"It's a tight link," said Gardell.
"When fat accumulates," he explained, "it can build up in fat tissue or in muscle tissue. Those individuals who tend to deposit more fat in their muscle tissue are more prone to diabetes."
When fat accumulates in muscles, it impairs their ability to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. That leads to insulin resistance, and ultimately to Type 2 diabetes.
The collaboration is particularly promising "because we're linking two companies that have synergistic skill sets," said Gardell.
While Sanford-Burnham officials would not say how much money Pfizer was investing in the project, they did say the collaboration was a great example of how the research center is working to diversify its revenue stream.
Since the federal government has cut back on its research funding and grants, science institutes have had to rely more on private funding.
"One of our goals in coming to Medical City was to bring in private research dollars," said Gardell. "We're doing that with Pfizer."
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