Priye Iworima is passionate about problem-solving — and she’s tackling a big one. A PhD student in the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering, Iworima is working with Professor Timothy Kieffer to develop protocols for the conversion of stem cells into beta cells, or the cells in the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin. If successful, such protocols may one day be used to generate a functional cure for diabetes.
Diabetes ranks in the top 10 causes of death worldwide due to the potential development of complications such as cardiovascular disease, neuropathy and blindness
World Health Organization
Stem cell-derived beta cells are a potential cure for diabetes
As of 2016, 422 million adults have diabetes. That number is expected to rise to 629 million by 2045
World Health Organization
Why does your research matter?
Stem cells are a particular kind of cell that has the potential to become any of the 206 cell types in the body. We want to use those cells to make them insulin-producing cells. A person living with Type 1 diabetes, who has either dysfunctional or no insulin-producing cells, could have these cells implanted into them as a form of replacement therapy.
Our ultimate goal is to create a functional therapy for diabetes, which could cure the disease. People living with diabetes likely would not need insulin injections anymore because those insulin-producing cells would help control their blood sugar levels.
What drives you to work for a cure?
Most people living with Type 1 diabetes take insulin injections to control their blood glucose multiple times a day. They have to keep track of the carbohydrates they consume and decide how much insulin to inject for every meal — they can never take a break.
Most people living with diabetes can sense if they’re getting tired and need to eat something or if their blood glucose is too high and they need to inject insulin. But people living with brittle diabetes can’t sense when their blood sugar is low. That’s very dangerous. Think about parents whose kids live with this hard-to-control diabetes — when they go to bed they don’t know what will happen to their children while they sleep. What if their blood sugar drops really low? They may never wake up.
Some people can’t afford their insulin, and when they can, they don’t dose it properly. They reduce their dose because they need insulin to survive and they are trying to make it last longer. If we can find a solution where they don’t need to constantly inject insulin, that would have a huge impact on their lives. We could help them not to have to live with that fear. We would free people living with diabetes from having to think about their condition all the time.
Why did you choose to focus on diabetes?
During my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I studied neurodegenerative diseases. Specifically, I worked on understanding a certain dysfunction that can occur in brain cells in the context of Parkinson’s disease. I’m fascinated by what causes diseased states. That’s an important question, because if we understand what makes the disease we can try to reverse-engineer it to try to fix the problem.
Fast-forward a few years, I started working with stem cells in the Kieffer lab, which studies different aspects of diabetes. I was hooked. I decided to come back to do my PhD in the School of Biomedical Engineering. Not only are we trying to make stems into insulin-producing cells, but I’m also trying to figure out how to make the manufacturing side of it scalable. Making the cells in a lab is one thing, but making it available on a larger scale: that is the key.
What keeps you inspired along the way?
I love problem-solving, and this is an area where there’s a lot of exciting research. There are so many things we can learn from these cells and questions I could potentially answer. The challenge is, are we asking the right questions? Are we using the right tools to answer those questions? That’s where it gets tricky. It’s one giant puzzle we’re trying to solve with the ultimate goal of one day curing diabetes.
What is it like being a researcher at UBC?
It’s a fantastic environment for collaboration. UBC is filled with a lot of brilliant minds who can help solve problems. I thrive off of the intelligent people who give me feedback and because I’m working at the forefront of the field, I can contribute to the cause.
UBC is rich with professors doing incredible research and resources to help you carry it out. Science is not cheap, so it’s nice to find yourself in an environment that supports the science you’re doing, be it financial, from funding agencies or generous donors, or having the right people with the knowledge to get things done.
We learn a lot from other people. They might not be doing anything in diabetes at all. They might be working with another disease. They may not even be working with cells, but a technique they’re using could apply to what we’re doing. You cannot be an island on your own. You need to collaborate with others to address even a portion of the question you’re trying to answer.
UBC gives me that opportunity. But you also need to put in the work. You need to seize the opportunity and make of it what you will.
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