World Diabetes Day 2018 Q&A

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To commemorate World Diabetes Day on 14 November 2018, we talked to Roger D. Cox Ph.D, who leads the research into the Genetics of type 2 diabetes at MRC Harwell Institute.

What has been your path into MRC Harwell? 

I started out working on somatic cell genetics during my PhD at the Institute of Neurology in London, mapping human muscle cell antigens and then did a postdoc in skeletal muscle contractile protein gene regulation at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. I then moved into genome mapping in a second postdoc at the ICRF, Lincoln Inns Fields. After that I led the physical mapping and gene ID group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, during which time I first worked on the genetics of diabetes. I came to MRC Harwell in 1999 to set up a group working on the genetics of type 2 diabetes using the mouse as a model system.

Why have you dedicated research to diabetes and genetics?

Diabetes affects almost 4.7 million people in the UK with 1 million of those being undiagnosed. Diabetes has the potential to have a significant effect on an individual’s health and quality of life and can lead to increased mortality in those affected. Genetics offers a powerful way of identifying the underlying mechanisms that lead to increased risk of developing the disease.

How important is that to helping tackle the disease?  

Human genome wide association loci mapping has generated a tremendous resource of loci that alter the risk of developing diabetes in the human population and opens the way to understanding new biology. Basic research on these loci will lead to understanding of disease mechanisms. In the longer term these approaches should lead to the identification of new targets for the development of therapeutic approaches.

Are you focused on cure or managing the disease? 

We are focused on mechanisms and this should, in some loci, lead to treatments in the longer term.

What role does synthetic biology play in tackling the disease? 

We are exploring the potential of synthetic biology in studying mechanisms in fat tissue. Fat is important for the storage of energy and also secretes hormones and has an important role in type 2 diabetes, a multiorgan disease. We hope to be able to model some of the processes important in adipose tissue function and carry out mechanistic studies using synthetic biology.

How important are partnerships between MRC Harwell and OxSyBio in helping to understand and tackle diabetes? 

The partnership is enabling us to do experiments that would not have been possible alone. The technology and expertise are opening new avenues of research that we will apply to the genetics of type 2 diabetes. The ability to generate highly reproducible 3D cultures at scale also offers the possibility of carrying out large scale screens which will be useful for looking for compounds that may alter cell function in order to understand how these work and potentially offer future therapeutic benefit in the long term.

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