Diabetes is a chronic disease that can cause blindness, stroke, kidney and heart problems. Diabetes occurs when there is a drop in insulin; either because the beta-cells that produce this hormone in the pancreas die or they can no longer produce enough. We do not understand why these cells fail, but we know that it is likely a combination of lifestyle choices (poor diet, low exercise) and genetics. It is becoming clear that disease in other organs, such as muscle, liver, and fat, can directly affect whether beta-cells produce enough insulin. Our lab strives to understand how different organs talk to each other during the development of diabetes, and whether we can improve this communication to prevent or treat the disease.
Low levels of a protein called PGC-1 in cells are associated with increased risk of diabetes and we have shown that decreasing this protein in muscle, liver, or pancreas of mice worsens diabetes and causes complications in other organs, which is more severe when the mice are also given diets high in fat and sugar. This suggests that PGC-1 plays an important role in how well our body deals with excess calories.
Our research goals are to determine how PGC-1 is important for the health, survival, and function of these organs and what happens when PGC-1 levels are either increased or decreased (e.g. as the result of our genetics, diet, or medical therapies). Our work will help to understand whether PGC-1 plays a significant role in the early stages of diabetes, and with this knowledge, we may be able to design better drugs or find new ways to predict risk and/or severity of disease in patients.