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NASA and Universities Join to Fight Diabetes
NASA image processing technology used to explore orbital images of Earth and distant worlds is being modified for diabetes research.

Scientists at The George Washington University, Washington, and Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., helped modify the technology, which has greatly increased the speed of the research. "NASA technology combined with our modifications has provided us with new tools for fighting diabetes," said Murray Loew, director of the Biomedical Engineering Program and professor of engineering at The George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Diabetes afflicts more than 20 million Americans. It is caused by the body's inability to regulate glucose, a sugar that cells use for energy. The hormone insulin regulates blood glucose levels by unlocking the interior of cells and allowing glucose in blood to pass through the cell wall. Insulin is manufactured in beta cells in the pancreas. Microscopic structures called granules carry insulin toward the cell wall of the beta cells, where it is secreted in response to glucose levels in the blood.

Two types of diabetes exist. In Type I diabetes, pancreatic cells are destroyed. In Type II diabetes, either pancreatic cells don't secrete enough insulin, or cells in the body lose their responsiveness to insulin, or both problems happen at once. Both types of diabetes cause glucose to build up in the blood instead of being delivered to the interior of cells, where it is needed or would be stored. Life-threatening effects include coma, heart disease, kidney damage, nerve damage, blindness, and loss of limbs.

In the research, the team analyzed electron photomicrographs (images from an electron microscope) of beta cells from rats.

The original NASA technology helps scientists to classify image elements (pixels) and identify different types of landforms, geology and vegetation. In the laboratory, it's been adapted to identify biological structures, the insulin granules, in electron photomicrographs. The research team observed the number, size, and position of insulin granules in the beta cells in response to glucose.

photomicrograph of beta cell with insulin granules Image right: This is a photomicrograph of a sliced rat beta cell that has been processed with the modified NASA imaging technology. Insulin granules are the dark black spots surrounded by a white area called a halo. Large cells have hundreds of insulin granules. The colored borders around the granules are labels added to identify them and classify how they appear. Credit: NASA/Tim McClanahan. Print-resolution copy (1.5 meg jpg image)

"Previously, the analysis of each electron micrograph took an assistant several hours to complete. Now, with the image processing software, we can automatically analyze several dozen electron micrographs overnight," said Tim McClanahan, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"We plan on an extensive collaboration in the future. The potential for this research is excellent," said Geoffrey Sharp, a diabetes expert in the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University. The team has submitted proposals to the National Institutes of Health and the American Diabetes Association to further validate the technology with additional data and to extend the work to identify and characterize other microscopic cellular structures.

The research is being funded by Goddard's Part Time Graduate Study Program, NIH, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Bill Steigerwald
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center