The Things We Do for Science – Part 2 – by Katharine Owen



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Katharine Owen is researcher and consultant in diabetes at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM). She is interested in the different types of diabetes found in young adults and the best way to diagnose and manage them in the clinic. She tweets (occasionally) at @DrKathOwen

It was probably a bit cheeky, but when I saw Morag’s post while browsing Twitter one night and knew that we were looking for volunteers with her kind of diabetes to take part in our research project, I thought I would try my luck. I followed her, she followed me back, and it was the start of something beautiful…

So what was Morag letting herself in for? The research project is called StemBANCC (http://www.stembancc.org), a big project funded jointly by the European Union and the pharmaceutical industry as part of the “Innovative Medicines Initiative”. The aim is to produce “pluripotent stem cells” derived from people with a wide range of diseases, to be turned into a resource of cells that researchers in academia and industry use in the future. The applications would include development and testing of new drugs and better understanding of human disease.

Using cells made from real patients with the disease of interest should give us a better insight into the processes that go wrong within our cells to cause disease and how potential new treatments will work in human cells. Currently we have to rely on studies performed in cells that don’t exactly mimic the ones in our body, or to work with animal models. Diabetes is a good example of where the cells of interest – the beta-cells in the pancreas – are pretty much inaccessible to us to collect to use in studies, and so the prospect of being able to ‘make them in a dish’ would open up a whole new range of exciting experiments

As you can tell from Morag’s blog, we collect lots of details on our volunteers, take a few(!) tubes of blood and then, most importantly, take a skin biopsy. If Morag had been looking she would have seen that this was done under local anaesthetic using a 4mm diameter circular “punch” which cuts a little circle from the skin.

The skin sample is then rushed down to the lab to be “cultured” – growing the cells in a dish. Skin cells grow quite well this way and can be kept alive for a long time or frozen to be thawed for use in the future.

We then need to treat the skin cells to change them into stem cells. These are cells that have the potential to develop into any kind of other body cell – e.g. muscle, liver, kidney or pancreas. All our cells start off as stem cells, then develop into specialised cells under the influence of chemicals produced in the body. We have to reverse this process to create stem cells – this is now a fairly well established technique, but was revolutionary when first discovered, earning its creators the Nobel prize! What is very tricky however is creating some of the cell types that are of particular interest in diabetes– for instance the creation of insulin producing Beta-cells is not yet perfected. You may have seen the press coverage recently of scientists who have gone some way towards doing this by implanting human stem cells in mice (http://bit.ly/1DFFmrR), although it’s a long way from being the “cure for type 1 diabetes” that some newspapers claimed.

In StemBANCC we are collecting samples of various groups of people with diabetes – including some with rare forms of diabetes like Morag, who has MODY. MODY is interesting because it is caused by a single change (like a spelling mistake) in one gene and it is fascinating to study how this single change actually affects the beta-cell and leads to diabetes and whether this tells us anything about more common forms of diabetes.

I’ve been working in diabetes research for nearly 15 years now and all my work has depended on people like Morag getting up early in the morning and giving their precious time and blood freely to us, usually on an empty stomach. As someone who loves breakfast, I appreciate this immensely! Over the years, all these uncomplaining volunteers have enabled me to understand a bit more about diabetes in young adults, and, in particular helped spread the word about how to diagnose people with rare kinds of diabetes like MODY. Many of these people also come to see me in clinic and have shared not just their blood samples and DNA, but their problems, challenges and happy times too. I feel very privileged to have built this genuinely “special relationship” with many people and I’m glad to hear from Morag that it can be as satisfying to participate in research as it is to be the investigator!

If you want to hear about Morag’s experience of taking part in the StemBANCC research project, read Morag’s post here

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