Were you interested in science as a child? What sparked your interest?
I have always been curious about how things work, in particular living systems. An obsession with Star Trek probably made a big impact at an early age, making impossible things possible. The inner workings of the human body seem like that to me, a completely chaotic world of tiny impossibilities, that are actually so incredibly possible and somehow shaped by chance.
Tell us about the valuable lessons you learned during your development as a scientist from graduate school to postdoctoral training.
Not being afraid to make mistakes and developing and perfecting lab techniques and skills by doing something so many times it becomes sickeningly second nature. And if you make mistakes taking the time figure out exactly why and how to not do it again and then make 100% effort to never do it again, can be one of the best ways to learn.
Now as a mentor, what do you think is the single most important lesson that you would like your trainees to learn from you?
Do not be afraid to be wrong about an idea no matter how big or small. Make sure you know how and why you are wrong and then follow that up by asking the question either in a different way or asking an entirely different question.
Postdoctoral fellows often face many challenges. What would you like to see improved over the next decade?
I think there needs to be a clearer divide between postdocs that want to pursue careers in academia versus those who just need more research experience and want to go to industry or be a career research assistant. The desired outcome would be making stricter time constraints on fellowships for academic track fellows that would perhaps change the landscape of the job market. Or another option could be developing more research assistant positions for those who want to stay long term at the bench, although that would be limited by funding. Additionally, it would helpful if there were some regulations on retirement age that could then open up more faculty positions for young scientists.
Describe why your research is important to the ordinary citizen.
Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States, 23 million Americans are currently diagnosed with this disease. Additionally, diabetes has a broad and significant economic impact, with an estimated $245 billion annual cost. The main cause of diabetes is the loss of insulin release from pancreatic beta cells, as they malfunction and deteriorate. The research questions I focus on will help us understand what goes wrong in pancreatic beta cells under diabetic conditions, with the goal of identifying new targets for treatment strategies.
What aspect of your research excites you the most?
I am excited about uncovering more details of how pancreatic beta cells fail in diabetic conditions. It will be interesting to learn how this fits into normal beta cell physiology and whether other disease states might involve the same pathways. Another interesting possibility raised by our research is the potential for cell-cell interactions, and understanding whether pancreatic beta cells affect tissues besides the liver, muscle and fat cells and apart from insulin signaling.
How is the funding environment influencing your research focus?
There are definite areas of interest to funding agencies. These interests are sometimes evidenced by the suggestions and feedback that investigators receive on proposals. These comments are always considered and can help build research areas in a positive and sometimes collaborative way.
What is your opinion about the peer review process? Have you found the process of manuscript review challenging?
Yes, it is challenging, but I think it might be more objective than non-reviewed routes to publishing. Actually, being at both ends is challenging. Providing a balanced objective critique that hopefully helps weigh how much is enough to convincingly draw a conclusion and how important will it be for a given field is sometimes very difficult. The sharp increase in the number of findings or data panels needed to address reviewer concerns, which affects all scientists, is likely a reflection of the major leaps we have made in technological advances over the past decade. It has definitely raised the standard since science usually takes the attitude, if we can think of it and do it then it should be done.
And finally, phase 1/2 clinical trials were announced recently that aim at testing stem-cell strategies for the replacement of beta cells in patients with type 1 diabetes. What are your thoughts about the successful implementation of these strategies?
I think the use of stem cells is a very attractive and exciting possibility that should be taken with the utmost caution when moving to clinical trials. So far, ex vivo it has been incredibly difficult for groups to generate beta-cell like cells from stem cells, hopefully in vivo the cells will become more functional as seen with these ex vivo-derived cells in mouse studies. The main challenge seems to be with getting the cells to respond to glucose accordingly and consistently to secrete insulin to the same degree as naturally developed beta cells. More research aimed at deciphering why the cells do not function as well as true beta cells will hopefully improve their therapeutic potential.
Select Publications by Dr. Accalia Fu:
Fu A, Robitaille K, Faubert B, Reeks C, Dai XQ, Hardy AB, Sankar KS, Ogrel S, Al-Dirbashi OY, Rocheleau JV, Wheeler MB, MacDonald PE, Jones R, Screaton RA. LKB1 couples glucose metabolism to insulin secretion in mice. Diabetologia. 2015 Jul; 58(7):1513-22. PMID: 25874445.
Fu A, Eberhard CE, Screaton RA. Role of AMPK in pancreatic beta cell function. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2013 Feb 25; 366(2):127-34. PMID: 22766107.
Fu A, Ng AC, Depatie C, Wijesekara N, He Y, Wang GS, Bardeesy N, Scott FW, Touyz RM, Wheeler MB, Screaton RA. Loss of Lkb1 in adult beta cells increases beta cell mass and enhances glucose tolerance in mice. Cell Metab. 2009 Oct; 10(4):285-95. PMID: 19808021.
Fu A, Screaton RA. Using kinomics to delineate signaling pathways: control of CRTC2/TORC2 by the AMPK family. Cell Cycle. 2008 Dec 15; 7(24):3823-8. PMID: 19098422.
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