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European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Australia Group Leader Harald Janovjak is new to Australia, lured here by the strong academic atmosphere, excellent life quality and amazing nature. We’re similarly excited to have him on-board as new talent to the field of type 1 diabetes research.

Hailing from Switzerland, Dr Harald Janovjak has lived in Austria most recently, before packing up and along with his wife, moving to our sunny shores. He is now EMBL Australia Group Leader at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute and lead of the Janovjak Group.

Harald is a member of the 2018 JDRF/Macquarie Group Foundation (MGF) Future Research Leaders Program and has recently been awarded a JDRF Innovation Grant. He’s using this grant, along with his expertise of engineering and cell biology, to develop a new way to regenerate beta cells.

Interview with Dr Harald Janovjak…

Tell us about your research in T1D

My research focuses on tissue regeneration, using the biological technique of optogenetics, which uses light to control cells in living tissue. I’m hoping to find new ways to manage the survival of cells, particularly cells that are affected by degeneration such as insulin-producing beta cells in T1D.

I’m inspired by findings in vision research – namely, that cells in the eye respond to visible light with rapid growth. My team and I found that beta cells also respond to light with an increase in numbers.

We’ve identified the family of light-sensing proteins and cellular-signalling pathways that control this process and are now working on developing this further, using human islets.

In the long-term, we hope to increase beta cell numbers in donor tissue before transplantation, meaning they can go further and treat more people. Eventually, we’re working towards reducing the need for donor tissue at all, by regenerating beta cell mass in the bodies of people with T1D. This would mean they can be free of the need for daily insulin.

Light would have many advantages for selectively-controlling beta cells because it can be pointed directly at the pancreas, overcoming the limitations you get with molecules that circulate around the body and affect lots of different cells.

What are the next steps for your research?

We are currently working very hard to demonstrate the action of light in early animal models, which will complement our work on isolated human beta cells. To do this, we are using a wireless light delivery technology that was recently developed by researchers in the US. Many Australians are quite familiar with the core technology from their daily lives: contactless bank card payments or public transport systems such as myki in Victoria operate in similar frequency ranges as these wireless optical devices!

Why did you want to get involved in the Future Research Leaders Program?

As I am new to the field of T1D, I hope to learn much more about the field. I wanted to meet others working in diverse areas of research in order to expand my knowledge and networks to benefit my research, which I hope will ultimately benefit people living with T1D.

What are some useful things you have learned so far as part of the Program?

The JDRF/MGF Future Research Leaders Program has really helped me to appreciate the breadth of research − all the way from molecules to cells and patients − that we undertake collectively to find an end to T1D. The program has also helped me to connect with peers that have already helped us with our upcoming experiments. So, there have been strong general and practical implications for my work, and this is great!

How did you come to be in the field of T1D research?

We made a surprising discovery outside of T1D that we were then able to apply to beta cells and the pancreas. I find it amazing how open the T1D science community is to researchers from other fields, and this spirit particularly shows in the work of JDRF, which cannot be praised enough for initiatives such as their Innovation Grants. But I have to add that it was the JDRF/MGF Future Research Leaders Program that allowed to me to comprehend the disease and the implications it has on the people that are living with it. It is sometimes easy to lose track of why we are doing what we are doing when spending a lot of time in research labs.

Tell us about your recent move from Europe to Australia

Australia offers a perfect mix for young research professionals! It is a research power house and there are many world-class researchers around the country whose work I have admired for years. This strong academic atmosphere is complemented by excellent life quality and amazing nature. One of the best things about our move is that my wife has previously lived and studied in Australia; so she was very much looking forward to returning to the country she calls home.

Tell us something about yourself outside of your role as a researcher

One of my goals outside of the lab will be to attempt to pick up Aussie Rules (AFL), admittedly starting from skill level zero. Probably this is naive, but I learned to kick in soccer, catch in basketball and to take a hit in martial arts so I hope for a small chance of success!

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