Let your pancreas sleep
Every three minutes a Canadian learns they have diabetes. Much of this growth comes, according to Diabetes Canada, from new cases of type 2 diabetes. The situation is similar around the globe, so any new insight into diabetes’ nature carries immense worth, and PhD student Nivedita Seshadri has discovered something valuable.
Nivedita’s mind works fast, probably because it knows exactly what it wants to do all the time. Growing up in India she loved watching medical detective shows on TV and her favourite part of the show was when they relied upon molecular biology.
“I just knew I wanted to do those techniques one day!”
She arrived at the U of M in 2012 to do her master’s. Eventually she joined the lab of her current PhD advisory Christine Doucette in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, but before that they talked about research desires.
“I had an interview with her where she told me about her research program and gave me projects to choose from,” Nivedita, a 3MT finalist, says. “I don’t remember her even going to the second option. I knew I wanted to study a gene that rhythmically oscillates every 12 hours to maintain appropriate functions of the pancreas, which secretes insulin to regulate blood glucose.”
And this is exactly what she does.
Nivedita focuses on a pancreatic clock that controls the amount of insulin being released based on what time of day it is. As each cell in every tissue has an internal clock, the process should, well, run like clockwork. But environmental factors like jet lag and shift work can disrupt our genetic clocks, and that can impact our health on grander scales.
Nivedita found an odd association between the pancreas’ insulin-release process and a specific protein. The protein (uncoupling protein 2) has a straightforward job: During the day when you’re active and eating, levels of this protein go down, allowing for maximum insulin secretion. At night—when we are not supposed to be snacking—levels of the protein go up, suppressing insulin release. Poor sleep habits alter this crucial ebb and flow, potentially causing dangerous blood sugar levels that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
This finding offers many great potential avenues to explore, and Nivedita’s work has a practical application right now.
“We definitely need to keep in mind the time of day we take our drugs to ensure optimal effect,” she says.
As for Nivedita, she continues to sleep well and focus on her research because what she wants to do, and what she does, has never gone out of synch.