Memorandum

Janssen hosts web conference on ambitious type 1 diabetes research initiative – March 31, 2015

Executive Highlights

  • Last week, Janssen hosted a web conference to update the diabetes community on its new type 1 diabetes research initiative, launched last month in partnership with JDRF under the company’s Disease Interception Accelerator program.
  • The program will aim to address three critical pathways in early-stage type 1 diabetes: rebalancing the immune system, maintaining beta cell function, and identifying potential environmental triggers. The ultimate vision is to integrate early-stage screening and therapy into routine pediatric care – not an easy task, to be sure.

Janssen hosted a web conference recently to update the diabetes community on its new type 1 diabetes research initiative, launched last month under the company’s Disease Interception Accelerator group, which is supported by JDRF. The program’s leaders, including the highly regarded Dr. Joe Hedrick (who worked at JDRF for many years), spoke in broad, ambitious terms about the scope of the effort, stating that it is intended to produce completely new paradigms and culture shifts in the field and that “every conceivable partnership will be required” to accomplish its goals. A quote from Janssen R&D Global Head Dr. William Hait offered an apt summary of the program’s philosophy: “A hundred years from now, someone’s going to look back on us and say, ‘can you believe they waited until you got a disease and then did something?’” We are very pleased to see such a focus on disease interception from a major pharmaceutical company and are of course thrilled that type 1 diabetes was selected as the first area of interest. Dr. Hedrick explained that type 1 diabetes perfectly fit Janssen’s criteria for an ideal “interception opportunity” because (i) the field has some idea of how the disease starts and of important risk factors and biomarkers; (ii) there are clear hypotheses of how interception could work (for example, addressing declining beta cell function or environmental triggers); and (iii) there is a practical window for interception, as the disease process begins years before the onset of insulin dependence.

While specific research projects have not yet been announced, Dr. Hedrick outlined three critical pathways that the program will aim to address: (i) rebalancing the immune system by targeting antigen-presenting cells, accessory cells (like natural killer cells and macrophages), and antigen-specific tolerance (i.e., a diabetes vaccine); (ii) maintaining beta cell function, such as by reducing oxidative stress and inhibiting beta cell death; and (iii) identifying potential environmental triggers like viruses and gut microbiota. Elucidating novel biomarkers will also be a key aspect of the research, as a better understanding of disease progression will be crucial to the success of any therapies that emerge. Another key challenge down the road will be integrating earlier screening and/or treatment into clinical practice on a large scale. Dr. Hedrick said that he envisioned screening for autoantibodies or other biomarkers becoming a routine part of pediatric office visits, but several participants (mostly parents of children with diabetes) expressed some skepticism about the feasibility of implementing that approach on a large scale (as one parent put it, “we can’t get doctors to screen urine when kids present with symptoms”). The program’s leaders acknowledged these challenges and stressed that they are very receptive to input on strategies for reaching out to the healthcare community as well as on ideas for the research phase. We are impressed with how serious Janssen has been about engaging the diabetes community in this process – the call closed with an invitation to reach out to Janssen (to Global Immunology & Biotechnology Communications Director Mr. Brian Kenney at bkenney1@its.jnj.com and LifeScan Communications Director Mr. Dave Detmers at ddetmers@its.jnj.com) with any input. 

  • As a reminder, Janssen has also launched two additional research platforms focused on disease prevention, both of which could potentially have applications to diabetes. The Janssen Human Microbiome Institute, which aims to “translate the science of the microbiome into therapeutic targets and diagnostic capabilities,” will almost certainly have implications for diabetes and/or obesity given that the gut microbiome is currently one of the most cutting-edge research areas in the field. The Janssen Prevention Center will focus on prevention of chronic diseases associated with aging; the company highlighted Alzheimer’s disease and cancer as two initial areas of focus during the web conference, but we could easily see diabetes fitting into the program’s mission in the future.  

-- by Emily Regier and Kelly Close