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Pair of PhDs pool knowledge to find clue to diabetes development: Protein linked to Creutzfeld-Jakob seems to play role in blood sugar regulation

December 5, 2006

By Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa researchers have found that a protein that causes Creutzfeld-Jakob disease might play a part in regulating blood sugar and could affect the development of juvenile (Type 1) diabetes.

It's not that there's any direct link between Creutzfeld-Jakob -- a brain-wasting disease -- and blood sugar, says the team from the Ottawa Health Research Institute. The brain disease comes from a twisted, deformed protein, while the new discovery about blood sugar shows that same protein strictly in its healthy form.

But the lab group says its work on the protein known mainly for damaging the brain helps shine light on a mystery: How does the body regulate blood sugar, and what can make this crucial system break down?

The rats in Fraser Scott's lab at OHRI, which is affiliated with the University of Ottawa and is the research arm of the Ottawa Hospital, showed a couple of curious traits. First, the rats that were most likely to develop diabetes also tended to have more clusters of these molecules called prion proteins, in the insulin-making cells of their pancreas glands. These cells break down in diabetes.

As well, the Scott lab learned the pattern of these clusters in the normal rat pancreas changes dramatically within one to three days of giving the rats heavy doses of sugar in the blood.

A host of different proteins form the internal machinery of cells. The role of the prion protein isn't fully understood yet, but this study suggests an involvement in regulating blood sugar.

Mr. Scott, a cell biologist, puts down the basic idea to two people in his lab who recently earned PhDs.

"This was an unusual coming-together, a cross-fertilization in our lab, of someone who had a background in prion protein biology -- that's Alex Strom -- and Gen-Sheng Wang, who has considerable expertise in the pathogenesis (beginning) of diabetes," he said. The two post-docs worked out a way to pool their talents.

What followed was two years of lab work: blind alleys, false leads, trying to find the far side of the maze. "That's sort of normal in all research, I think," the research scientist said.

Type 1 diabetes begins at an average age of 13, but can also begin in adulthood. It is believed to be caused by environmental factors, including diet, acting on a pancreas that's prone to the disease.

"Certainly in high-risk families there is an increased risk of developing the disease. So in those families you could think of doing something in a preventive way," he said.

The results of the study were published this week in a pathology journal called Laboratory Investigation.

Reproduced with permission from the Ottawa Citizen