Hailing from New Zealand, Dr Hamilton-Williams honed her skills at research facilities in Germany and San Diego. In 2011, she returned to Australia, where she had earlier completed her postgraduate studies. She is now a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI).
Emma, tell us about your research in the field of type 1 diabetes?
My research is centred around two main themes – immunotherapy and the gut microbiome. In the immunotherapy space we are trying to develop a treatment using nanoparticles to prevent the destruction of insulin producing beta cells. These nanoparticles, contain an anti-inflammatory drug and part of one of the islet-derived protein targets of the autoimmune cells. They will be placed in mice to block the inflammatory response which leads to type 1 diabetes. We hope this will be a specific way of inactivating only the disease-causing cells and leaving the rest of the immune system functioning normally to prevent destruction of the insulin producing cells, and halt the disease progression.
The theory is that the more beta cell mass we can preserve in someone who is newly-diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the less insulin they will need. The remaining beta cells will also produce insulin naturally, which can control blood glucose levels better than injected insulin does. The more time spent in the target blood glucose range, the less risk for a person of future complications.
A similar therapy is currently being trialled as a vaccine to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which is also an autoimmune condition.
My other interest is the microbiome. I’m looking at what changes we see in the microbiota – the community of microorganisms that live in the gut – before type 1 diabetes develops. We’ll investigate how this is influenced by genes associated with increased risk of T1D and how changes in the microbiota may be associated with triggering disease.
We will test whether transferring certain bacteria from mice protected from developing T1D into the gut of mice at risk of T1D is able to prevent T1D development and investigate what factors support the survival of protective bacteria in the gut.
What are the next steps for these studies?
Ideally, we hope to translate findings for both of my focus areas to clinical human studies. We are already doing some human studies on the microbiome. We have been collecting stool samples from people with type 1 diabetes and their siblings who don’t have the disease. We then sequence all the proteins and look at bacteria and their function. We’ve already identified that there are a number of proteins that are different in people who have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and the question is – did this happen before diagnosis? That’s what we hope to find out.
How will being involved in the JDRF/Macquarie Group Foundation’s Future Research Leaders Program (FRLP) allow you to further your research?
As part of the program, we’re working on forming new collaborations, strengthening our networks, and learning how to be a better research manager. It’s been very helpful meeting the others in the program and also learning JDRF funding mechanisms and how they work. This is the process that happens from the time when someone donates to JDRF to how research projects are selected and funds allocated.
I’ve also started collaborating with other researchers within the program including Dr Eliana Marino, who is also working in the gut microbiome space.
What will you be doing next in the program?
I’m excited to begin the 1-1 mentoring phase. Our professional mentors have just been assigned and my first phone call with my mentor is coming up. I hope my mentor, who is an experienced researcher, can help me learn more about longer-term planning and the ‘bigger picture’ of the research industry.
We’ve also got our second Leadership Development workshop coming up in September, where we’ll get to expand on some areas from our initial two-day workshop. We got to give the feedback on which areas from the first workshop we wanted to explore further.
What led you to pursue a career in the type 1 diabetes space?
I’ve always been interested in medical research, as it’s focused on changing the lives of actual people. I like the fact that we can make a difference. I don’t have a direct connection to type 1 diabetes, but through my role at the Diamantina Institute, I get to meet some great people with type 1 when they come in for the JDRF events and lab tours.
I also want to add that I really appreciate the support I’ve had from JDRF; the training and mentoring I have received has been really valuable.
Stay tuned to our blog to meet more of our FRLP pilot year participants, and get to know more about their research.
Photo credit: University of Queensland