We study the developmental biology of the pancreas with a view to finding new treatments for diabetes. Our aim is to understand how the pancreas develops and use that information to grow and develop new pancreatic cells (Islets of Langerhans). This project is an example of the larger question of how vertebrates make an organ from undifferentiated embryonic cells.
Our experimental approaches use the tools of molecular, cellular and chemical biology to investigate how precursor or stem cells give rise to the pancreas and how pancreatic tissue is maintained in adults. This includes identifying cells and gene products that specify developmental fates and physiological functions during organogenesis, regeneration, and following autoimmune attack. We use a variety of techniques including functional genomics, chemical screening, tissue explants and grafting. While we use several vertebrate organisms, including frogs, chickens, and axolotls, the main thrust of our work is done with human stem cells, both embryonic and iPS cells, as well as their mouse counterparts.
Directing cells to form new pancreatic tissue has a practical significance: if our studies are successful, it should be possible to apply our conclusions to human cells and provide a source of insulin-producing beta-cells for diabetics.