Dr Claire Jessup (pictured), who has been appointed to Flinders on a three-year Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, will work in partnership with Dr Damien Keating in the Human Physiology Department to improve the success rate of an experimental procedure known as pancreatic islet transplantation.
An autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes occurs when the beta cells of the pancreas stop making insulin because the body’s own immune system has attacked and destroyed them, causing glucose to build up in the blood.
Researchers in Australia and across the world are now experimenting with pancreatic islet transplantation – a process whereby islets containing the insulin-producing beta cells are transplanted from the pancreas of a deceased organ donor to the diabetic patient.
It is hoped the procedure will help those suffering from type 1 diabetes to live without daily insulin injections.
Clinical trials began in Australia in 2005 following a Federal Government grant to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, however Dr Jessup said more research was needed to find a way to improve the procedure given that 70 per cent of the cells die upon transfer.
“Islet transplantation certainly has its benefits for people with a severe and debilitating form of diabetes but we really need to find a way to improve the health of beta cells so they live longer once they’re transplanted,” Dr Jessup said.
“These cells only make up one per cent of the pancreas so it’s very difficult to isolate them without causing damage and the other problem is that patients need two to three transplants, all from different donors, because the cells can’t multiply,” she said.
Assisted by a team of researchers from various institutions across Adelaide, Dr Jessup will investigate the role of a particular gene called RCAN1 in islet function, as well as how to increase the blood supply to the pancreas following a transplant.
“One reason they die is due to a lack of oxygen so we believe that if we co-deliver endothelial progenitor cells, which are the building blocks of blood vessels in the body, then we might be able to increase blood supply and therefore improve the overall health of the cells,” she said.
“The good thing is that no matter what we’re still going to discover a lot more about diabetes itself because if we understand how beta cells work then we may be able to stop them from being killed in the first place, which removes the need for treatment.”
In addition to her fellowship, Dr Jessup has received one of 10 Vice-Chancellor’s Early Career Research Awards, an annual program to acknowledge individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to research since finishing their PhD.