August 8, 2023

On February 1st of this year, Dr. Matthias von Herrath, M.D. was selected as the new Scientific Director of the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) at the University of Miami after a two-year search. The JDCA was fortunate to meet with Dr. von Herrath late last month to discuss the future of the DRI—as well as the future of type 1 diabetes research at the institution.


Von Herrath’s Background

Prof. Von Herrath is well known in the scientific community for his efforts in diabetes research. He brings with him into the new position 25+ years in the scientific fields of diabetes and immunology, alongside a lengthy trail of achievements and awards.

Before joining the DRI, von Herrath was a Professor at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, California, where he both founded and served as Director of the Center for Type 1 Diabetes Research. Today, he is the Scientific Director of the DRI and acts as the current Vice President and Senior Medical Officer at Novo Nordisk. For now, he is commuting weekly from his home in Southern California to his office in Miami. Von Herrath seems confident that he will be able to juggle his various commitments without issue.

His energy and enthusiasm for having the opportunity to lead the DRI is catching. He summarized this sentiment by exclaiming, “The DRI has phenomenal research potential” and compared the institution to “a hidden jewel.”


Big-Picture Strategic Direction

Dr. von Herrath stated that under his leadership the DRI’s historic mission will remain unchanged, continuing to “develop and rapidly apply the most promising research to treat and cure those now living with diabetes.” The Diabetes Research Institute will remain focused on type 1 diabetes research. All funds from the foundation strictly go toward the cure and prevention of T1D, and this will not change.
However, von Herrath says that there is a significant overlap between type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes, causing the lines dividing the two to blur. Reasons for this include misdiagnosis of T1D as T2D and an increase of obesity and insulin resistance in T1D that accelerates autoimmunity. He stated that if applicable, the DRI would be open and willing to put forth resources to T2D so long as they overlap and are relevant to accelerating understanding and curing T1D. The JDCA hopes that this blurring does not result in the DRI materially drifting its resources and focus away from T1D.  
Von Herrath’s ambition for the DRI is for it to become an “interdisciplinary accelerator” that sets the stage and facilitates the research community, including pharma and research centers. He sees the DRI as the center of a research ecosystem.
The strategy von Herrath has introduced to the organization is an acronym called E.V.O.L.V.E. He hopes this will push the boundaries of science, foster collaborations, and nurture the careers of young scientists.
Leaps across boundaries
Veritas (Latin for Truth)

DRI’s Research Areas of Focus

Our next question to Dr. von Herrath was regarding areas of focus in DRI’s research. Von Herrath reported that all stakeholders share the same excitement toward the possibilities and new achievements in the immune frontier. This enthusiasm leads the DRI striving to be a key catalyzer and work toward islet cell replacement approaches that do not require chronic immunosuppression. This includes exploration in islet transplantation, immunotherapy—what the Scientific Director describes as the “Last Frontier,” —regenerative medicine, and stem-cell-based therapies.


Research priority areas are:

Improving Biomarker Identification
DRI will seek to improve the identification of natural progression disease biomarkers. In particular, the DRI will focus on “distributing the system therapeutically to induce autogenic tolerance.” They would also like to be involved in universal screening.


Human Organic Production of Islet Cells
This year, DRI says they will introduce work in human organics to make human islet cells from stem cells. DRI will use these cells as test subjects “to learn about what impairs islet cell function, how islets can be resuscitated, and how they can be camouflaged from the immune system.” Von Herrath also indicated that it will be highly unlikely for the DRI to touch and play with proprietary cell lines from larger pharmaceutical companies.


Accelerate and Sort the Field of Stem Cell-Derived Islets
Von Herrath emphasized that he does not see DRI competing with big pharma in producing proprietary islet cells. He said the DRI’s role is “not to recreate what large pharma already has . . . but to accelerate and sort the field.” DRI’s focus will be to help determine what might allow the cells to become autoimmune-resistant. DRI will sort the relative importance of all fifty or so factors that can be chosen from to create an immune evasive islet.


Remain Involved with Cadaverous Cells
The field is moving from cadaverous to stem-cell-derived islets, and DRI wants to be involved in both by acting as a key player in helping companies to realize their vision. Ideally, Dr. von Herrath would like the DRI to collaborate with entities like the New York Stem Cell Foundation to explore the nature versus nurture of type 1 diabetes.


Immunosuppressant Alternatives
Programs of particular interest at the DRI are those that improve beta cell interface, augment beta cells for optimal mass, and induction-maintenance therapies so patients do not have to stay on immunosuppressants with lifelong effects. Of these, the focus of our discussion orbited around subtopics of introducing new platforms (via organics, pathological imaging cells and cell supply, and prevention).


Additional Priorities for the DRI

Improved External Communications
One of von Herrath’s principal non-research objectives is to improve the quality of external communication from the DRI. He made a passionate point that within the diabetic community—with patients and other institutions worldwide—clear communication is not easy. It needs to be crisp and clear.
A joint effort between DRI, DRIF, and the University of Miami, the communications office will drastically facilitate the flow of information, improving the speed and fluidity of communicating new research and advancements to the public at large. With islet trials being especially time-consuming, difficult to perform, and expensive, if the lines of communication are not open worldwide, then time and resources will be wasted. According to von Herrath: “We need to sort the field and be openly vocal, not in a self-serving manner, [but] what the best is for patients. We owe it to patients.”


Recruiting the Best Scientists
The DRI plans to increase the recruitment of bright scientists, junior and senior alike. They want to incentivize young students with Spark grants (grants intended to ‘spark’ creative, positive change), establish Bridge Funding grants (supporting ongoing research programs lacking funding, or new research directions entirely) for junior and senior Private Investigators who have missed the chance at NIH grants (National Institute of Health grants that further their mission to reduce burdens of illness and disability).
This goal aims to support creative research programs that the traditional review process would take too long to approve. This ensures promising ideas are not overlooked. Mentoring programs will also be available to nurture the growth of DRI’s scientists, creating opportunities for informal interactions and discussions with the Scientific Director.

Closing Thoughts

The JDCA is content that after a two-year search, the Diabetes Research Institute has selected a new Scientific Director. We are eager to see what the future holds with Dr. von Herrath, who demonstrates genuine excitement toward T1D research. The JDCA will follow-up with Dr. von Herrath after he is further settled into the position, and we will continue covering further developments. The JDCA hopes to report continued focus on T1D as his time at the DRI progresses.