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Georgia Regents earns $10M for diabetes study

Study looks at connection between genetics and environment

The Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine at Georgia Regents University in Augusta recently received $10 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue research studying how genetics and environment might impact type 1 diabetes. The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY) study started in 2003 as an international collaboration by six clinical centers in the United States and Europe.

Led by director, Dr. Jin-Xiong She, the Augusta center began by screening more than 400,000 newborns a decade ago. About 3.5 percent of those tested had a gene believed to put them at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes at some point in their lives. Of those, nearly 9,000 children were enrolled in TEDDY.

Researchers are currently following those children. They receive regular blood tests and their parents bring in detailed records of what they eat, when they exercise, when get sick, or stressed. Parents collect water samples and fingernail clippings for researchers trying to find a link between genetic and environmental causes of type 1 diabetes. They'll follow the kids until age 15 or until they've developed diabetes, whichever comes first.

Diane Hopkins, MS, CCRC, project manager for the Georgia/Florida site, answered some questions about the project.

How did TEDDY come about?
Up until the time the study was conceived, the top type 1 diabetes researchers were competing with each other to garner NIH dollars. There were so many theories that each researcher was doing something slightly different. The NIH brought the researchers together and said we would like to bring you together to work with children all over the world that hopefully answers each of the questions you guys are asking and addresses each of the theories you guys are posing.

What are you hoping to find?
We already know type 1 diabetes is a complex disease. Some elements are due to genetics and some are due to the environment. We already understand the genetics to a certain point. The TEDDY study is designed to try to figure out what the environmental triggers are to cause someone to have the high-risk genes to develop type 1 diabetes. There are a lot of theories out there¬—gluten, cow's milk, viruses, hygiene—a lot of different things that are thought to be causative or protective or both.

How important is this?
I think this could be very, very significant because we're watching all these different pieces come together. It's the first study designed to encompass all these things on the scale that it's on.

What is the goal?
Cure and prevention both. There are many different ways you could try to find a way to intervene. We don’t fully understand what causes the disease. There are so many different places along the line where you could find an intervention—a gene therapy, a medication to prevent it, a way to work backward to cure the disease. We're coming at it any way we can.

$10 million seems like a lot of money!
And this is the second renewal of the grant. I think it is somewhat unusual in terms of the amount. We were very hopeful that it would be renewed. These sorts of questions can't be answered in a short period of time. The renewal is for five years, then we'll try for another renewal.

We haven’t even hit the adolescent point yet. By the time they've reached 15, it's less likely they'll develop it. The oldest children are 8 years old. They get a certificate and gold medal when they make it halfway through.