Diabetes research, NASA style

While the phrase “NASA technology” may bring to mind images of space shuttles and intergalactic gadgets, one GW professor has modified the same technology used for surveying outer space in hopes of getting closer to curing diabetes.

Murray Loew, GW’s director of the biomedical engineering program, is working along with diabetes expert and Cornell University pharmacology professor Geoffrey Sharp to perfect and promote a software program that they hope will aid future diabetes research and be useful for a variety of other scientific causes.

Since cellular image analysis – one of the biggest new developments in diabetes research – can only be seen under a microscope, Loew and Sharp are trying to see it utilizing the technology NASA uses to explore images of Earth and space.

Cellular imaging analysis has been heralded as holding great promise for furthering diabetes research that could lead to eventually combating the disease. NASA’s programming is now being modified into a tool that could be used to help bring an end to diabetes.

“Having diabetes means constantly having to walk a tightrope.” Loew said. “Several companies are working on devices that will make balancing glucose levels simpler, avoiding the need to draw blood, which many people dislike doing.”

Diabetes, which affects more that 20 million Americans, is caused by the body’s incapacity to regulate glucose from food and utilize it as energy. The hormone insulin is crucial in allowing cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream, and is transported to the plasma membrane of certain cells in the pancreas by structures called granules. Analyzing these granules is a main purpose of the computer program Loew is producing.

In Type I, or juvenile, diabetes, the body stops making insulin, and the hormone must be injected for cells to be able to take up glucose normally. In Type II, or adult onset diabetes, the cell stops responding to insulin and can no longer properly use the glucose that is readily available.

In both cases this can lead to serious conditions such as falling into a coma, heart disease, kidney and nerve damage, loss of limbs and blindness.

“Diabetes is the largest single contributor to new blindness in the U.S.,” Loew said. “The possible long-term effects of this disease are very serious.”

In previous research, analyzing electron micrographs of cells meant hours of tedious counting, measuring and estimating, with even the most painstaking efforts falling subject to human error, he said.

With the new image-analysis tool, a micrograph can be accurately analyzed in just 10 minutes. Even more importantly, he added, the measurements made by the technology are consistent and reproducible, giving researchers confidence that their work is reliable and objective.

This project got off the ground when Loew and Sharp realized several years ago by working together they may be able to develop an innovative and advantageous way to perform cellular examination.

Tim McClanahan, a doctoral student, is also collaborating on the project. McClanahan is a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where similar technology has been used to classify images and identify landforms in space.

The images analyzed by Loew and McClanahan come from cells of rats that are manipulated at Cornell and then inspected under a high-powered electron microscope. The data and finalized method will eventually be sent back to Sharp, who will be able to use the program in further diabetes studies.

The method and technology these three men are developing could be useful not only for diabetes research, but also for examining cell structures in other illnesses, the professors said. The algorithms used by their computer program are exceptionally versatile, Loew said.

“Only slight modifications would be needed before they could be used successfully to look at other organelles, such as mitochondria,” he said.

While highly sophisticated and complex imaging techniques have been developed for cellular imaging of diabetes in the past, this program is the first one that would allow use on a broader scale without the necessity of intense training and rare equipment.

The research team for this project has submitted a proposal for funding to the National Institute of Health, and hope to get financial support that will let them further refine and apply their research.

Loew said this advancement could be extended to biologists and other scientists, “providing a tool for the quantification of cellular properties and substructures, and greatly speeding up research.”

Loew said diabetes is an increasingly widespread disease, especially among overweight children. While many people are able to control the condition through exercise and diet, the constant need to maintain a delicate balance of several factors is exhausting and science still has a great deal of ground to cover.

“The mechanism by which glucose stimulates insulin secretion is not well-known,” he said, adding that understanding it is his underlying goal here.

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