Extracellular matrix (ECM) is the complex substance outside of cells that provides structural support to tissues and organs. In addition, specific ECM molecules provide signals that influence cell behavior in health and disease. Dr. Vernon’s laboratory focuses on understanding how ECM regulates the behaviors of T cells and antigen-presenting cells (APCs) of the immune system. Typically, ECM is thought to be a product of structurally-supportive cell types, such as fibroblasts, osteoblasts, and smooth muscle cells; however, recent work by a number of laboratories, including the Vernon Lab, has shown that a variety of ECM molecules are produced by T cells and APCs. The functions of these immune cell-derived ECM molecules are largely unknown, and characterizing their influence over immune cell behavior is a major focus of the Vernon Lab.
A parallel project in the Vernon Lab investigates the use of specific ECM components and other bioactive molecules as therapeutic agents to mitigate autoimmune responses. This project focuses on the development of a Bioengineered Islet Implant (BI) to replace the endocrine pancreas for treatment of type 1 diabetes. The BI places transplanted, insulin-producing islets of Langerhans in contact with specific ECM molecules, growth factors, and immunomodulatory monoclonal antibodies. Collectively, these agents are tailored to create a graft microenvironment that promotes islet survival, islet function, and immune tolerance.