July 3, 2024

BRI’s Innovation Fund Sparks New Discoveries

BRI recently launched an Innovation Fund to support visionary research and take science in new directions. The fund, powered by philanthropy, enables BRI scientists to test and implement new technologies through innovative research projects. After the initial project, the technology becomes available to scientists across BRI.

“There aren’t many funding opportunities for early-stage ideas or implementing new technologies, so we started this fund to close that gap,” says BRI President Jane Buckner, MD. “This fund is enabling our team to test new and exciting ideas, apply the latest technologies, and generate the preliminary data needed to apply for larger grants.”

Here’s an update on one of the first projects the Innovation Fund is supporting, led by Caroline Stefani, PhD, and Eddie James, PhD.

Exploring New Ways to Treat T1D

Beta cells live in the pancreas and help our bodies make insulin. But in people who have type 1 diabetes (T1D), beta cells get mistakenly attacked by immune cells called T cells.

A lot of T1D research is focused on finding ways to slow down and stop the attack on beta cells. But Drs. Stefani and James are asking a different question: Can we make the beta cells more resilient against attack?

Caroline  Stefani

“We think about it like giving the beta cells a bulletproof vest or a survival pack,” Dr. Stefani says. “Even if the cells get attacked, can we make them more resilient so they can repair themselves or survive longer?”

Big research questions are at the heart of every Innovation Fund grant. To earn funding, scientists from different labs must form a team to answer questions that leverage each lab’s expertise.

Dr. James’ team has deep expertise in T1D, while Dr. Stefani is an expert in both advanced imaging tools and how cells repair themselves. 

Innovation funding will first help them build the infrastructure needed to grow human beta cells, a process James Lab postdoc Aisha Callebaut, PhD, learned from an expert group in Belgium and brought back to BRI. This solves a crucial problem of access to beta cells, which scientists could previously only study if a person died and donated their pancreas to research.

With replenishable access to these cells, Dr. Stefani is developing methods to gather detailed information about what might make them weaker or stronger. This will enable their team to test whether gene changes or various medicines can make beta cells more resilient.

Drs. Stefani and James are already thinking about what other questions they could answer with this approach — like if it might be possible to make neurons (brain cells) more resilient to neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis.

Eddie James

“Neurons would be easy to make in the lab,” Dr. James says. “Beta cells are actually one of the harder cell types to make because they require seven steps. But we could make neurons, skin or gut cells in two or three steps.”

That’s what makes this fund so powerful: It doesn’t just support one scientist answering one question. It supports tools and technologies that have a ripple effect across labs and disease areas at BRI.

Dr. James was on the selection committee for a past Innovation Fund Award and found it difficult to choose just one project because there were so many great ideas.

“My hope is that we can give more of these grants out each year and grow our capabilities even more,” he says. “We’re so excited to see this fund up and running at BRI and so grateful for everyone who supports it.”

Immuno-what? Hear the latest from BRI

Keep up to date on our latest research, new clinical trials and exciting publications.