“It is an incredible feeling to test new hypotheses, enter unknown territory, and think that these experiments could better help explain the world we live in.” — Dr. Sylvie Lesage

Sylvie Lesage lies awake for a while, reflecting on the results of yesterday’s mouse model experiments, before her alarm jolts her back to the present. She swings her legs over the edge of her bed, ready to take on another day, hunting for the cure for type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Lesage runs a research laboratory at Maisonneuve Rosemont Hospital, overseeing a team of seven, and is an associate professor at the University of Montréal, where she inspires hundreds of students through lectures and seminars. One question motivates her to get out of her bed and into the lab every morning: why does type 1 diabetes happen? Research has shown that type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, meaning that some immune system cells mistakenly attack the body’s own cells, instead of viruses and bacteria. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells, called beta cells, are the target of the rogue white blood cells.

With funding support from Diabetes Canada, Dr. Lesage and her team are studying why these immune cells go awry, and if this process can be stopped.

The ideal results of her research would be to find a way to prevent type 1 diabetes from occurring, and to cure it in mice. “Mouse models allow us to manipulate cells and systems in ways that we could never hope to in human cells. These models help us provide answers to basic biological questions,” Dr. Lesage explains.

What a cure could mean 

A cure in mice would mean researchers are one step closer to a cure for the millions of people affected by the diabetes epidemic. The successful science could then be adapted for humans, and Dr. Lesage could move into phase 1 clinical trials, which would determine the safety and effective dosing of the treatment. Until her mouse model cure is discovered, however, Dr. Lesage and her team continue to search for answers. It is this thirst for knowledge that keeps Dr. Lesage going, even when her first meetings in the lab often start before 9 a.m., and experiments run all day and night.

Research takes time and money

“There is never a dull moment,” says Dr. Lesage, “and never enough time to do all that must be done.” To keep the heat on, and the computers running, the team must compete for funding against thousands of other hopeful scientists. “In this current funding situation, it is very difficult to plan for longterm projects,” explains Dr. Lesage. “It is virtually impossible to undertake high-risk, high-reward research.” One of her biggest concerns is that, as research funding dollars decrease, research leading to important discoveries could go unfunded.

Dr. Lesage runs a relatively small lab and doesn’t have huge costs, yet it takes about $1,000 to run her lab each day. Every component of research, including animal husbandry, RNA sequencing, salaries for highly-skilled staff, and even disposable gloves, adds up. Research takes money, but also time. And the life of a researcher requires many responsibilities beyond the lab walls.

For Dr. Lesage, every day brings something new. She divides her time between duties, including running the lab, lecturing at the university, writing manuscripts, sitting on committees and speaking at conferences.

Mentoring the minds of tomorrow

One of her favourite aspects of the job is mentoring her students and lab staff. “When I was a young child, I wanted to become a teacher. As soon as I had the opportunity to mentor others, I jumped on those occasions. I found that I had an ability to transfer knowledge and truly appreciated helping others solve and understand complex problems,” says Dr. Lesage.

Both in the students she mentors, and in her own kids, Dr. Lesage aspires to have a positive impact. Dr. Lesage has two children, Valérie, 14, and Loïc, 11, and does her best to leave the lab every day around 4:30 p.m. so she can spend a few crucial hours with her family before the kids are off to bed, and she’s wrapped up in writing or editing.

Thinking back on her milestones in the lab, Dr. Lesage reflects, “it’s an incredible feeling to test new hypotheses, enter unknown territory, and think that these experiments could better help explain the world we live in.” Though it’s a busy life, Dr. Lesage wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Photo courtesy of Sylvain Durocher, Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital.

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