A diabetes researcher at Binghamton University has racked up $1.2 million in grants toward her current studies.

Sha Jin, undergraduate director of biomedical engineering, received grants from both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand her laboratory’s research in diabetes modeling, drug discovery and disease treatment.

So far, Jin and her team in the Tissue and Biomolecular Engineering Laboratory have focused their research on stem cells and the relationship between cells and their microenvironment. Ultimately, they aim to generate clinically relevant tissues for diabetes research and experimental treatment.

“The grants support my team, mainly Ph.D. students, performing experiments in order to develop biologically functional human endocrine tissue from stem cell differentiation, and use the islets for disease modeling, drug testing and transplantation,” Jin said.

Jin said her interest in diabetes research stems from the disease’s widespread effects on global health.

“Diabetes is predicted to be the third-leading cause of worldwide death by 2030 due to its complications, as the disease may induce other diseases, including heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, kidney disease [and] blindness,” Jin said.

Diabetes causes blood glucose levels to be dangerously high in the body, an effect that can come from the pancreas not producing enough insulin or the body not responding to insulin normally. The pancreas regulates the body’s insulin, and Jin’s team is researching ways to build new, healthy tissues that could perform the same functions.

“One of the major focuses is to engineer tissue cues to facilitate the development of biologically functional islet organoids, and to build microenvironments for promoting the maturation of stem cells-derived islets,” Jin said. “In addition, my lab interrogates the molecular mechanisms underlying the synergistic regulation of physiochemical signals essential for islet development.”

Pancreatic islet transplantation is a new experimental treatment for diabetes. Sections of tissue — islets — are removed from the pancreas of an organ donor. These sections should have healthy beta cells. Islets are then injected into a vein, one that carries blood to the liver, of a person with Type 1 diabetes. The islets should eventually make and release insulin in the recipient’s body.

Jin said she hopes to explore two main questions. Firstly, she wants to understand how oxygen tension affects the development of islets in a three-dimensional scaffold. Then, she hopes to study the mechanism’s underlying protein and how it can promote endocrine tissue development.

Transplantation of the islets shows potential, according to Jin, but it is important that her team find a way to create and maintain a supply of them.

“While islet transplantation is promising, the supply of transplantable islets is limited,” Jin said. “An alternative source of islet supply is human-induced pluripotent stem cell differentiation. Therefore, my team is focusing on generation of functional islet tissues using stem cells.”

While Jin’s lab is growing with these new grants, she said self-motivated students with an interest in stem cell research should reach out to her.