Maureen Gannon, Ph.D., got into diabetes research almost by accident. Gannon has run a research lab at Vanderbilt for over 10 years now, but she started out studying how digestive systems form in embryos.
Her research led her to PDX1, a protein that turned out to be a key player in how beta cells survive and multiply. Beta cells are cells in the pancreas that make insulin.
“I kind of came in through the back door,” she said. “The most exciting things in science happen when you get something you didn’t expect.”
Today, Gannon’s lab is still studying transcription factors such as PDX1 as well as other subjects. Transcription factors are proteins that turn genes on and off, and they are vital to understanding how the body produces insulin. FoxM1 and HNF6 are two other transcription factors the lab is studying. Research funding comes in part from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
These transcription factors matter because we know that people who have had type 1 diabetes for most of their lives still have insulin cells that are trying to reproduce.
“If there’s even a little pool of cells remaining there, if we can find out how to expand that in the patient, then they wouldn’t need an (islet cell) transplant,” said Gannon.
Such a treatment could also help patients with type 2 diabetes. These people have insulin cells, just not enough to control blood sugar. If Gannon’s lab and others can figure out how to use transcription factors to “turn on” insulin production, it would open up new frontiers of treatment.
“I like how studying the pancreas and pancreas development has an almost direct link to doing clinical type studies, and I can see how what I do can affect people,” said Maria Golson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Gannon’s lab whose FoxM1 project is also funded by the JDRF.
The lab thrives on a collaborative spirit. Researchers gather for informal meetings to bounce ideas around and see what might work.
“We don’t want to get in a rut,” said Gannon. “We’re always evaluating: Are we doing the right experiments? Are we asking the right questions? Are we using the right tools?”
Looking ahead, the lab is exploring whether FoxM1 affects insulin cells in a way that might help people with diabetes.
“If we can just show that turning on FoxM1 has an effect on the number of insulin cells, then that would be a good target for some sort of therapy,” said Gannon. “But first we need to show that it does what we hope it does. We should know within the next few months.”
Watch a video of Gannon explaining her area of research below.