NCCU Team Wins $1 Million Grant to Develop Diabetes Treatment

A research team from North Carolina Central University has been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop drugs for treating Type 2 diabetes.

The leader of the team is Dr. Jonathan Sexton, assistant research professor at NCCU’s Biotechnology Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE). The BRITE facility has been in full operation just since 2008, and Sexton said the grant is a sign that the institution is starting to fulfill its potential.

“We now have a well-established pipeline for drug discovery,” he said, “And the great part about it is, it works. We’re building a world-class research institution.”

Type 2 diabetes, once known as adult-onset diabetes, is closely linked to obesity. It is a chronic condition that affects the way the body metabolizes sugar. People with type 2 diabetes are resistant to the effects of insulin, a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar into the body’s cells. Untreated, it can be life-threatening.

Sexton noted that according to public health projections, one-third of all people born in the U.S. after 2003 will develop type 2 diabetes. The rate is much higher in the South, and among African-Americans and certain other minority groups.

One goal of his team is to develop a drug or drugs that can be delivered in pill form; most treatments now are via injection. The team will use a process called high content analysis, an automated cell biology method drawing on optics, chemistry, biology and image analysis to determine what happens when living tissue is exposed to thousands of different compounds.

“We’ll use human liver cells and tissue as a platform for drug discovery,” Sexton said. “We take the tissue, and add experimental drugs to test for good or bad effects. There’s no better place than human tissue to look for success in drug development.”

High content analysis (also known as high content screening) is a well-established drug discovery technique. What’s new at BRITE is the extent of the automation. With robotics, a $500,000 microscope and advanced imaging and image analysis technology, Sexton and his team can test huge numbers of compounds, generate a massive amount of image data and analyze it.

They will conduct the tests by drawing from BRITE’s library of about a half-million compounds. Most of the tested compounds will have no effect, or a negative one, on the human cells. But a few will have beneficial effects that warrant further study.

“We find the outliers — the needles in the haystack — where the effect is positive,” Sexton said. “It’s a straight numbers game. The more compounds you screen, the more hits you get.”

The grant is a Research Project, or R01, grant, NIH’s standard form of grant for basic research. The $1 million will be paid over several years, and the grant is renewable.