Published: 19-01-2024 18:05 | Updated: 16-02-2024 14:23

ERC Proof of Concept to Professor Per-Olof Berggren.

Illustration: Getty Images.

Professor Per-Olof Berggren has been awarded a ERC Proof of Concept grant by the European Research Council (ERC). The funding will be used to advance a technology in which islets of Langerhans are transplanted into the anterior chamber of the eye and employed as a screening tool to identify novel pharmaceutical treatments for diabetes.

Diabetes is the world's fastest-growing chronic disease, with over 500,000 individuals afflicted in Sweden today. Per-Olof Berggren's research focuses on Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM), the most prevalent form of diabetes affecting approximately 90 per cent of all diabetic patients. 

In the vast majority of cases, diabetes arises from suboptimal functioning of the insulin-producing beta cells located within the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. 

Per-Olof Berggren. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman.

"The functionality of beta cells varies among different disease subcategories, and to achieve effective treatment outcomes, individualised treatments are required for each patient. Current treatments and medications yield unsatisfactory results and can often lead to side effects," says Per-Olof Berggren, professor of experimental endocrinology at the Rolf Luft Research Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology within the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Karolinska Institutet. "Hence, there is significant interest in investigating methods to enhance beta cell functionality."

Window into the body

A major challenge in all research endeavours involves translating insights obtained from isolated cells in laboratory test tubes to the complex conditions prevailing in living human beings.

Per-Olof Berggren's prior research has resulted in a unique technology that enables transplanting islets of Langerhans into the anterior chamber of the eye. The eye has proven to be an advantageous environment for enhancing the functionality and survival of insulin-producing beta cells.

"In contrast to other transplantation sites, such as the liver, cells in the eye chamber have demonstrated significantly higher survival rates. Additionally, the eye offers us a distinct advantage; we can utilise the cornea as a natural window into the body for detailed studies of these cells, including their response to various drugs," says Per-Olof Berggren. "Consequently, research can be conducted in vivo at an early stage in the process, devoid of invasive interventions, damage, or discomfort."

Funding for further development

The technology is already used in clinical studies today, involving the transplantation of high-performing beta cells into diabetic patients.

With the newly granted sum of EUR 150,000 Berggren's research team at Karolinska Institutet aims to further develop this technical platform, with the ultimate objective of extending its applicability to other diseases and drug treatments.

"The technology offers numerous advantages, primarily the capability to monitor and validate how beta cells respond to various drugs and observe their behaviour over time within a living organism. The goal is to customise future treatments and, hopefully, address diabetes effectively through the utilisation of this platform," concludes Per-Olof Berggren.

The ERC Proof of Concept funding program is designed to facilitate the exploration of new ideas emerging from research projects previously funded by the ERC, with the potential to evolve into commercial products or otherwise benefit society.