ARCHIVED - Big dreams get a head start

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April 01, 2010

Young researchers often have big dreams. For Dr. Jennifer Estall, it's teaching, pursuing her own research, and, perhaps, finding a way to prevent diabetes.

These days her dreams are that much closer to reality. In 2007, she was awarded the NRC H.L. Holmes award to pursue post-doctoral studies in diabetes research at the famed Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, For the past two years, her research there has focused on what is happening inside insulin-secreting cells at the onset of diabetes.

Preventing beta cell death

Dr. Jennifer Estall, 2007 winner of the NRC H.L. Holmes award, hopes to eventually find a way to prevent insulin dependency in diabetes.

Dr. Jennifer Estall, 2007 winner of the NRC H.L. Holmes award, hopes to eventually find a way to prevent insulin dependency in diabetes.

In diabetes, blood sugar levels are abnormally high. Dr. Estall believes that this might be related to disruption in the function of mitochondria in pancreatic beta cells.

Mitochondria are structures within cells that provide energy and regulate cell death. Beta cells, in particular, need a lot of energy to produce and secrete hormones in response to changing blood sugar levels. When people overeat, the pancreas has to pump out more insulin. Eventually in type 2 diabetes, the beta cell machinery in the pancreas "poops-out" and the cells die. This causes the individual to become dependent on insulin injections at each meal.

Dr. Estall is trying to figure out the mechanisms involved in beta cell death and whether it can be prevented. "If you can protect [the beta cells] from dying by improving their mitochondrial function, you might be able to prevent patients from becoming insulin dependent," she says.

Did you know?

About one in 17 Canadians has diabetes and almost 200,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Diet and lifestyle are believed to be key contributing factors for developing the disease.

The incidence of diabetes has been rising steadily and health care costs are expected to increase to more than $8 billion annually by 2016.

Dr. Estall also wants to see whether a similar mechanism is responsible for beta cell death in type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. Like type 2 diabetes, the beta cells die. However in type 1 diabetes, cell death doesn't appear to be caused by "exhaustion." Instead it seems to be related to the immune system. Although the trigger of cell death may be different, she believes that the underlying mechanism may still be the same.

Her research is off to a fine start. She has already found that disrupting mitochondrial function in the liver greatly affects the metabolism in the rest of the body, including insulin function. Dr. Estall believes that the same molecule is involved in disrupted mitochondrial function in islets—clusters of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. In this past year, she has published her findings in two prestigious journals as lead author, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences and Diabetes. This was one of the highlights of her fellowship.

Islets are the regions of the pancreas that produce insulin. Dr. Estall believes that a disruption in the function of mitochondria in islets could be a factor in diabetes.

Islets are the regions of the pancreas that produce insulin. Dr. Estall believes that a disruption in the function of mitochondria in islets could be a factor in diabetes.

Bringing knowledge back to Canada

Dr. Estall credits a lot of her research success to the funding she received through the H.L. Holmes award. The scholarship is worth around $100,000 per year, over two years, and gives recipients the opportunity to conduct post-doctoral studies under outstanding researchers at world-famous graduate schools or research institutes. It also gave her the freedom to pursue her own research interests. It is a combination that few post-docs get to undertake and one that she describes as critical as she works towards running her own research lab. "I really got a head start on the whole process. It has probably saved me a couple of years," she says.

As her post-doctoral studies wrap up, Dr. Estall hopes to return to Canada in a faculty position to continue her research using the tools and models she has developed at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "There are many major centres for diabetes research in Canada," says Dr. Estall. She would like to join one of them and continue her dream.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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