Diabetes Canada funds research partnerships that help us leverage our research funds (getting a bigger “bang” for our research “buck”). These partnerships are strategic and allow us to address needs that might not be met through our regular research competition. We are currently funding three strategic partnerships.
University of British Columbia Centre for Research in Childhood Diabetes
Diabetes Canada has partnered with the University of British Columbia. This partnership pays salary support for three scientists hired at the Centre for Research in Childhood Diabetes. The Association has pledged to commit $1.2 million to this partnership ($80,000 per year for five years to each of three scientists). All three scientists have now been hired: Dr. Francis Lynn, Dr. Jan Ehses, and Dr. Dan Luciani. Dr. Lynn is trying to develop pancreatic stem cells that could replace dead beta cells to treat and cure people with diabetes. Dr. Ehses is examining how the immune system is involved in the development of type 2 diabetes, in hopes of finding ways to stop the process. Dr. Luciani is studying the genetic changes that lead to beta cell death in hopes of finding ways to prevent diabetes. Dr. Luciani is also the recipient of a Diabetes Canada Operating Grant that he is using to examine the role of a high sugar/high fat diet on the death of beta cells. He hopes to find new ways to keep beta cells alive in order to slow down or prevent the development of diabetes.
The Julia MacFarlane Chair in Diabetes Research
In 1983, the University of Calgary received a gift of money to set up the Julia McFarlane Chair in Diabetes Research. In 1993, the Diabetes Association (Foothills) joined forces to raise additional funding for the Chair. In 2011, when the Diabetes Association (Foothills) was assumed by Diabetes Canada, Diabetes Canada committed up to $1.2 million to this partnership (up to $250,000 per year for five years), raised through local fundraising efforts, to support the Julia McFarlane Chair in Diabetes Research.
The aim of this partnership is to: develop and maintain a world class program in diabetes research; provide leadership to the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Centre; work to foster, integrate and co-ordinate diabetes research within the Faculty of Medicine; develop and monitor annual budget; promote collaborative diabetes research across disciplines, building on strengths and utilizing the existing resources available in the University of Calgary, Faculty of Medicine; augment the scholarly activities of the diabetes research program (including both fundamental and clinical research) through recruitment of outstanding students and research associates.
Dr. Pere Santamaria is the Julia McFarlane Chair in Diabetes Research. He examines the cause of diabetes by studying tiny molecules that act like messengers of the body. Dr. Santamaria has found molecules that “switch on” cells in the immune system. When these blood cells (which have the nasty name of beta cell-killer white blood cells) are switched “on”, they attack and kill a person’s own beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. When enough beta cells die, there is not enough insulin in the body and the person develops diabetes.
Dr. Santamaria’s discovery of these “switches” has allowed Dr. Santamaria to discover a therapeutic vaccine for type 1 diabetes. This vaccine has been successfully tested in mice. Current work focuses on dissecting mechanisms of action in detail. The goal is to advance this vaccine towards clinical trials to determine if it can be used safely in people. This research is exciting not only because it may offer a cure for diabetes, but because it could help treat all diseases where the immune system turns on itself (autoimmune diseases). If this vaccine is successful, doctors may be able to prevent or better treat autoimmune diseases.
American Diabetes Association-Diabetes Canada Joint Post-Doctoral Fellowship
Our American Diabetes Association-Diabetes Canada (ADA-Diabetes Canada) Joint Post-Doctoral Fellowship Award is awarded to a Canadian Post-Doctoral Fellow training in the United States or an American Post-Doctoral Fellow training in Canada. These applications go through the regular peer review process, with an additional review and final selection by a joint Diabetes Canada-ADA review committee. This partnership allows Post-Doctoral Fellows to receive the finest training possible, whether that training is in Canada or the USA. When these awardees complete their training and return to their home country, they will be bringing with them new and exciting expertise. This award provides salary support of $40,000 per year for two to three years. Each recipient also receives a generous $3,000 travel allowance per year and must attend the American Diabetes Association or Diabetes Canada annual scientific meetings to share knowledge between countries. Since 2011, three Post-Doctoral Fellows have received this award: Dr. Mathieu Ferron (2011-2013); Dr. Jonathan Z. Long (2012-2015); and Dr. Frank Huynh (2013-2016).
Dr. Ferron examined a hormone – called ostocalcin– that is made by the cells that build bones (osteoclasts). Even though it is made in the bones, ostocalcin tells the pancreas to make insulin and helps other cells in the body be more sensitive to insulin. Dr. Ferron wanted to know how ostocalcin is involved in the development of diabetes. Over his two years of funding, Dr. Ferron found that mice that do not make ostocalcin are glucose intolerant and have fewer beta cells (the cells that produce insulin) than healthy mice. This is an important first step in finding the role of ostocalcin in the development of diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes are sometimes given a drug called rosiglitazone. This drug works by “turning on” a process that regulates fat. Dr. Long is looking for molecules that are naturally in our bodies that could also turn on this process. After his first year of funding, Dr. Long found a cancer drug that regulates fat cells. He will continue to study this cancer drug to see if it could also be used to treat diabetes. Dr. Long has also found other molecules that improve blood glucose levels in obese mice, and he is beginning to examine how and why this happens. Dr. Long’s research could lead to new drugs for obesity and diabetes.
Dr. Huynh is examining mitochondria, the energy-producing engines of our cells. He has found a certain enzyme that, when it does not work properly, can cause the mitochondria to stop functioning well. This can lead to obesity and diabetes. Dr. Huynh hopes that discovering more about this process will allow researchers, like him, to find ways to prevent and reverse obesity and diabetes.