“Essentially, I want to contribute to the treatment and cure of diabetes.” This is how Richard Benninger, assistant professor of bioengineering, sums up his research goals. Benninger and his team of bioengineering students, fellows and research assistants use imaging technologies, computer modeling and optogenetics to study, understand and control the islets of Langerhans.
The islets of Langerhans make up between 1 and 2 percent of the pancreas. The beta cells contained within the islets are responsible for producing and releasing insulin into the bloodstream to control blood sugar levels. The beta cells are neuroendocrine cells and therefore have many similarities to neurons, for example they generate action potentials as well as form electrical synapses and electrically coupled networks.
“We use imaging techniques to capture the dynamics and regulations of this coupled electrical behavior,” explains Benninger. “We try to model and predict certain behaviors to understand how the function of the beta cells are disrupted in diabetes.”
He first became interested in this field while completing his postdoctoral work at Vanderbilt University. “The lab I worked in developed imaging technology and studied the biophysics of the islet,” he says. “I became aware that dysfunctions to the islets [of Langerhans] are a central cause of type 2 diabetes, and that type 1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of the islets.” Thus he found his research focus.
This type of quantitative diabetes research, which involves imaging, biology, computer modeling and engineering approaches, is unique and very rare, says Benninger.
“Harnessing these different approaches is very important,” he says. “People are spending time and enormous amounts of research money on studying the brain with similar approaches, but given the reduced complexity of the islet, we can use all these approaches together on just the scale of our lab. With the islets, you can see everything that’s happening. It’s something you can wrap your head around.”
Benninger, who’s been with the bioengineering department since 2011, is getting international recognition for the work he’s done. He received the 2015 Young Fluorescence Investigator Award from the Biophysical Society, which is given to an outstanding researcher at the beginning of his or her career for significant advancements in and/or contributions to or using fluorescence methodologies. And in the past year, he’s garnered more than $3.5 million in research funding through two RO1 awards from the National Institutes of Health, as well as been awarded a prestigious Career Development Grant from JDRF.
The first R01-funded project, “Emergent multicellular properties regulating pancreatic islet function,” will apply quantitative fluorescence microscopy approaches, optogenetics and computational modeling to examine the cell-signaling dynamics underlying insulin secretion from the islets of Langerhans. The second R01-funded project, “Multicellular interactions and dynamics of pancreatic islet function in diabetes,” will examine dysfunction to electrical activity in the islets of Langerhans and regulation of insulin secretion during the progression of type 2 diabetes.
Together these projects will examine different ways that the function of the islets of Langerhans are disrupted in diabetes and discover strategies in which islet function can be restored, working toward developing new treatments for different forms of diabetes.
Benninger says if he and his team can accomplish what they’ve proposed, and if it turns out as expected, he will be very happy. “This work has the potential to have a big impact on our understanding of how the disease progresses.
“This research is really important,” he continues. “We can see what the problem is: We need to make the islet secrete more insulin or to keep the islet from dying—that’s the goal.” Benninger’s office is located at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, a clinical research and treatment center. “I see kids and parents waiting to see their doctor about their diabetes every day, and trying to achieve something that can benefit them and the many others with diabetes is really motivating.”
The worldwide scale of the problem also inspires him.
“Diabetes is a global epidemic, with a huge impact on health,” he says. “The disease itself is very complex, but you can see our work as a root to a potential solution … it’s encouraging to discover things that could potentially be a cure.”