At Sanofi, science is our passion. To mark the 78th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association in June, we are spotlighting the work of our research scientists whose goal is to create a world without diabetes. Sanofi has been leading this quest for nearly 100 years, since we created one of the first insulin formulations. Yet even as treatments for type 1 and type 2 diabetes have evolved and improved, much more work lies ahead.
To better understand the future of diabetes treatment, we spoke with four scientists who are leading Sanofi’s highly innovative diabetes research programs. We are very proud of the vision and dedication of people like Anish, Aimo, Krister and Norbert – and their teams.
ANISH KONKAR: Focus – GI Endocrinology & Obesity
Obesity creates a build-up of excess fat in the abdomen, liver and muscles. It makes our body less sensitive to insulin, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes. So it’s not surprising that one of the biggest challenges in treating patients with type 2 diabetes is reversing obesity.
Traditionally, treating type 2 diabetes involves managing the disease – doctors initially prescribe lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise. Unfortunately, these efforts usually fail, and patients are then prescribed a succession of medicines to control their rising blood glucose levels. But there is currently no cure once a patient is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
We’re looking toward changing that by working to understand and potentially influence the body weight “set point.” The theory is that we have a target weight hardwired into our brains that governs things like our daily calorie intake and energy expenditure. When a person puts on weight due to overeating or reduced physical activity, that set point goes up. Our bodies “defend” this higher set point – for example, by slowing down our metabolism if we go on a diet.
Our research may sound like science fiction, but we aim to rewire the brain’s neural circuits to reset a person’s set point to an earlier, pre-obese level, and increase the body’s natural metabolic rate. By doing so, the patient should rapidly lose excess fat and, theoretically, could be cured of diabetes and obesity.
I am surrounded by an incredibly smart, passionate and dedicated team of scientists. That’s what motivates me to come into work every day. In five to ten years, I hope that our research puts me out of business!
Dr. Anish Konkar and Dr. Christine Mössinger, GI Endocrinology & Obesity Team
AMIO KANNT: Focus – Diabetes Complications & Comorbidities
For many patients, the later-stage complications of diabetes have the greatest impact on their quality of life, and are their largest unmet medical need. For example, diabetes is a major cause of blindness and loss of kidney function, as well as the leading cause of amputations worldwide. While there are several options available to manage daily blood glucose levels, there are few solutions that address these long term consequences.
The goal of our research is to provide 360-degree support for patients with novel approaches that potentially may work better than existing treatments. One of the most innovative areas of my work is finding treatments for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can result from fat build-up in the liver as a consequence of obesity, often linked to diabetes. NASH can be caused by multiple factors and can vary from person to person, so we are working on treatments that address several mechanisms in parallel. Unlike many other organs, the liver has a remarkable regenerative capacity; and even patients with liver fibrosis can potentially fully recover if NASH is appropriately treated.
As a scientist at Sanofi, I am working to create solutions for patients. Whether you are suffering from progressing kidney disease or NASH, we have dedicated teams that are working hard to try to prevent and treat these life-threatening complications.
Sanofi scientists in the Complications & Comorbidities Team
KRISTER BOKVIST: Focus – Islet Biology
Insulin is essential for the control of blood glucose levels; without it we cannot survive. Millions of people around the world inject insulin every day because clusters of endocrine cells in the pancreas, known as the islets of Langerhans, are no longer able to produce enough insulin to keep blood glucose in control.
In the islet biology group at Sanofi, we study how the islets regulate blood glucose to learn why the immune system decides to destroy islets in type 1 diabetes, or why the islets fail to produce enough insulin in type 2 diabetes. A deep understanding of how islets work is essential in order to improve how they function and thereby develop an effective treatment for diabetes.
Although still in the experimental stage, a potential game-changer in type 1 diabetes is beta cell replacement therapy. In this approach, in collaboration with our partner Evotec, we aim to use induced pluripotent stem cells (cells that can be modified to perform many different functions) to generate insulin-producing beta cells. Our goal is that these beta cells will be implanted in a type 1 diabetic patient to restore autonomous blood glucose control, which could potentially cure the disease.
I was attracted to Sanofi because working on islets has been my passion for 30 years. Together with a highly dedicated team, we aim to move this research forward from the lab and into the hands of patients.
Dr. Loehn and Dr. Ivashchenko, Islet Biology Team
NORBERT TENNAGELS: Focus – Insulin Biology
I have been researching insulin biology at Sanofi for 20 years. Insulin therapy is the traditional cornerstone for the treatment of diabetes, but our work in this area is far from finished. We continue to deepen our understanding of insulin biology so we can develop novel insulin formulations, such as glucose sensing insulins or insulin sensitizers. Our ultimate goal is to prevent and reduce the progression of type 2 diabetes and its complications, ultimately improving the quality of life of patients.
Determining the precise drivers of insulin resistance is a major challenge, as there are potentially numerous (and, perhaps, undiscovered) mechanisms that reduce insulin sensitivity. We are collaborating with biotech companies and academia to try to overcome these challenges.
I personally find working with the best and brightest scientists as one of the most rewarding parts of working at Sanofi. Towards this end, we have combined forces with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the Max Planck Institute (MPI) and many other organizations to drive our discovery work. These partnerships are a win-win – at Sanofi we have the expertise in drug discovery and development, while our partners provide vital insights into disease biology.
I’m constantly driven by the challenge to come up with better treatments for people with diabetes.
Even after many years in drug discovery research, my team and I still remain excited about the promise of breakthrough science leading to new therapeutic solutions. There is still so much room for innovation in this field, and with our partners, we intend to lead the way.
Dr. Norbert Tennagels, Insulin Biology Team