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Crowdsourced Project Building Whole Beta Cell Model

Beta cell model graphic

(Yekaterina Kadyshevskaya, University of Southern California)

27 March 2018. A new initiative is seeking participants from the worldwide research community to develop a multi-dimensional online model of the beta cell that produces insulin, found in the pancreas. The project known as the Pancreatic Beta Cell Consortium is led by researchers from University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and described in the 22 March issue of the journal Cell (paid subscription required).

A better understanding of beta cells is becoming more critical as the number of diabetes cases continues to grow. Diabetes is a chronic disorder where beta cells in the the pancreas don’t create enough insulin to process the sugar glucose to flow into the blood stream and cells for energy in the body. According to the International Diabetes Federation, diabetes affects an estimated 425 million people worldwide.

In type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diabetes cases, the pancreas produces some but not enough insulin, or the body cannot process insulin. Type 1 diabetes is an inherited autoimmune disorder where the body does not produce insulin, and is diagnosed primarily in children or young adults. Autoimmune disorders are conditions where the immune system is tricked into attacking healthy cells and tissue as if they were foreign invaders, beta cells in this case.

While the beta cell’s functions are conceptually simple, say the project’s organizers, understanding those functions is proving more difficult, as their complexities become known. Raymond Stevens, a structural biologist at USC and founder of the consortium, says new treatments for diabetes will require a more detailed understanding of beta cells, from a wider range of disciplines, and thus the need for this model. “We are converging to solve a difficult problem to solve a structure at multiple scales,” says Stevens in a university statement, “from the individual atoms, to the small molecules, to the macromolecule, to the cell.”

The consortium aims to build its model from data and images of beta cell components, interacting with each other, and with the rest of the body. The model is expected to capture and organize information on proteins, lipids, and metabolites in beta cells, as transcribed from genes, and the ways they function to produce or not produce insulin in healthy and diseased states. These data will likely be offered in a range of formats and media, including high-resolution graphics, from medical researchers, engineers, chemists, and computational biologists, among others. The project is also enlisting artists and film makers at USC to help integrate and present the visual and kinetic data.

Andrej Sali, an early collaborator in the project from University of California in San Francisco and a specialist in data integration and modeling, calls it “the ultimate modeling problem.”  Sali says that the beta cell is a big system that maximizes complexity somewhere between a gas and a crystal. “It’s also hierarchical: atoms, molecules, complexes, organelles, and cells,” he notes. “It will have to be solved by an integrative approach that relies on multiple sources of information.”

So far, some 50 researchers from the U.S. and China are taking part in the consortium, but it is open to contributions from any researchers in the field, working in any related discipline. The initiative is patterned after the Human Genome Project, also an international collaborative endeavor, but the organizers in this project set a 5-year timeline for completion.

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