A New Way of Looking at Beta Cells with Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, and the principal investigator at the Thompson Lab, which he founded after researching beta cell regrowth, working on a project funded through Diabetes Research Connection (DRC). He recently sat down with Beyond Type 1 to talk about what led him to working in the type 1 diabetes (T1D) space, the work he did through the DRC, and what he’s been up to since returning to Canada.
Beyond Type 1: Can you start by telling us about how you got involved in T1D research?
I did my doctoral training looking at understanding how cells make decisions on a fundamental level. But what I felt was lacking was a connection to medical treatment and understanding how that could translate into better therapies for different diseases. And when I started doing research in the diabetes field, it became apparent to me that with type 1 diabetes, you have a disease that we’ve known about for so long, and yet we’re still really limited in what we can do… we’re still really limited to [treating with] insulin. It’s striking because this year marks the hundredth year since insulin was discovered by Banting and Best, Canadian scientists.
And as I and some of the others have started to think about this, it’s just baffling that we haven’t been able to move beyond insulin in all of that time. So, I see that as a major area that we really need to grow in and an area that really needs a lot of minds tackling this problem. It really motivated me to delve into this. I have a couple of family members who have type 1, and a couple of my friends also, and I just see the burden that it has on them day by day.
Talk to me about Diabetes Research Connection (DRC) and the work you’ve done with them.
DRC is a non-profit research organization that is really geared towards funding early career researchers tackling important questions around type 1 diabetes. So, how the disease happens, how it can be treated, how we can… how we can move beyond insulin. It’s an organization that really seeks to fill a gap in the current funding environment around type 1. For a lot of people who are just starting out, if you’re training and you’re looking to go into an academic career, if you’re working with ideas that are very new, and different and pushing the boundaries, there’s not a lot of places you can go with those ideas to get funding.
DRC provides that platform, and they do it in a really innovative way. They use a crowd-sourced approach. So, they have this crowdfunding system where you can, basically, put your project out. It goes for peer reviews so it’s being reviewed by experts in the field. And then, you have the opportunity for the public to learn about your research. So, you make a connection, and then the public can fund your research.
I got connected with DRC in late 2016. So, I started my fellowship early 2016 at UCSF there. And so, they were really interested in funding early career researchers and coming up with funding for projects that were innovative, really pushing the limits of what we know about the disease and how we can treat it.
My project really was based on an odd observation that we’ve made. A lot of the previous work that’s been done in this field is really focused on the immune system and saying “We know that there are problems with the immune system in type 1 diabetes. The beta cells are just kind of there. They get destroyed, and that’s the extent of it.”
We wanted to question that a little bit. And there was a lot of resistance to that idea. Not necessarily just to our work, but in general, a lot of resistance, to the idea that beta cells could be doing more than just dying. So, we had this interesting idea, and we went in, and we looked in an animal model of the disease to try to understand what’s actually happening in the beta cells… Are they just dying or is something else going on?
And we were quite surprised, initially, to find that we found that beta cells were undergoing a different kind of stress response in addition to what had already been shown in terms of their ability to undergo programmed cell death. They were actually activating a completely different pathway.
And so, that got us going along a completely different line of investigation that turned out to be quite fruitful in the end. I’m continuing that work here [in Manitoba]. Probably the most significant aspect of that research was that we showed that this particular new pathway that the beta cells turn on is a pharmacologic target. So, we were able to show that when the beta cells do this, we can actually stop it, and it actually can prevent the disease in the animal model. So, it really gave us an inclination that we were on the right track in terms of something that’s clinically relevant as well.
What specifically are you working on now? Are you looking at preventing T1D?
I guess, right now, we’re looking more mechanistically. We’re trying to understand this pathway better. One of the things that’s emerged, and there’s been a growing body of research that’s really converging on the beta cell in type 1 and suggesting that beta cell, again, suggesting this idea that beta cells are doing more than just dying. If we can understand what’s happening early on, we can manipulate these pathways and promote beta cell health long-term. And the crosstalk that’s happening with the auto-immunity is something that may really come down to what’s going on in the beta cell. I’m excited to start to investigate some of these things in human pancreas tissue as well.
We’re going to be working with the nPOD Consortium. We worked with them at the project that I was leading at UCSF. It’s a really amazing organization, and some really great collaborations can be built through that too.
Yes—We’re trying to understand prevention. But also, this new idea that’s come out that a lot of young people, kids as well, who are newly diagnosed. Some of the studies that have come out have suggested that there’s actually a lot of beta cells still remaining. So, speaking to the question that you raised, is this something that’s just really relevant to prevention or could it be potentially something we could look at for someone who’s newly diagnosed? Well, I think that we might have some evidence that even at diagnosis, there’s still remaining beta cell function that can be preserved with some of these approaches.
Do you think we’ll see a cure for Type 1 diabetes in your lifetime, in Hayden’s lifetime, in the next 50 years?
I think we will. I guess I take a very optimistic school of thought of this that we are converging in so many different areas. My area is one of those areas, but there’s people doing amazing work on islet transplantation, and STEM cell-derived beta cells, and encapsulation devices and all of these different areas. And I think we do need that breadth of investigation going on from basic science all the way through to translation and clinical trials. And so, I do think we will see… I want to be optimistic. I do you think we will see a cure come forward in our generation.