The Alberta Diabetes Institute (ADI) officially opened on November 14th, 2007 – World Diabetes Day and the birthdate of Sir Franklin Banting. Located at and part of the U of A, it is a centre dedicated to innovative diabetes research in areas such as transplantation, immunology, nutrition, public health, auto-immunity and cell signaling.
Dr. Ron Gill, Scientific Director of the ADI, sees the institute as a place to foster inter-disciplinary, multi-sectoral research. Both Dr. Ron Gill and Dr. Peter Taylor, Executive Director of the ADI, see the ADI as a place where genuine interactions between groups, in an atmosphere of collaboration and collegiality, will build and flourish. As Mr. Taylor and Dr. Ray Rajotte state in the ADI’s publication “Diabetes Future,” (vol 1, #2), “the vision of the ADI is to create a new interdisciplinary research paradigm for diabetes research where surgeons will work with exercise physiologists and immunologists will work with nutritionists to unlock the secrets of human health and well-being.” And as Dr. Gill states in the same issue, “one practical means of fostering interactions is to support pilot projects between newly collaborating faculty.”

The ADI encompasses the four pillars of health research defined by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – biomedical, clinical, health services and systems research, and social cultural, environmental and population health.

Synergy – “an interaction where the combined effect of two or more components, agents or forces is greater than the sum of their individual effects,” (from the “Dictionary of Energy”) is a key element in the interaction between researchers at the ADI. “Scientists from the faculties of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, Medicine and Dentistry, Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences,

Physical Education and Recreation, and the School of Public Health will share their knowledge and experience, working side-by-side,” says Dr. Gill in “Diabetes Future” (vol 2 #1). The ADI as a facility is physically designed to foster this synergy. Labs encourage collaboration in diabetes research as teams share stat-of-the-art lab equipment in research cores.

Scientists in the ADI working at the cell signaling level are looking at mechanisms for diabetes from the perspective of healthy function of islets and the conditions – genetic and environmental – that cause dysfunction. Their research is helping to unravel the mystery of how beta cells work and how insulin secretion is regulated.

For example, in the labs of Dr. Cathy Chan, Dr. Peter Light, and Dr. Patrick MacDonald, cell-signalling research is investigating what causes beta cells to fail and why, in diabetic conditions, these cells are no longer able to secrete sufficient insulin.

Beta cells, which make up 75 to 80% of the pancreas, are solely responsible for the body’s insulin production and are severely impaired in type II diabetes. The beta cell energy supply can be altered in obesity and diabetes and the impact this has on insulin secretion is another area of study.

As Dr. Chan states in “Diabetes Future,” (vol 2 #1), her cell signaling lab’s work is to “….understand the molecular and biochemical changes that occur in beta-cells in obesity and diabetes and the factors that may cause these changes; for example, diet and physical activity.”

This has led Dr. Chan and other researchers to look at the bigger picture – finding the most effective ways to modify lifestyle behaviours – as well as continue research at the cellular, mechanistic level. Dr. Chan is the Principal Investigator of an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral research project funded by the Emerging Research Teams Grant that exemplifies the collaborative, collegial approach of the ADI. Created to address lifestyle modifications for those with type II diabetes, while continuing to investigate mechanism in diabetes at the cellular level, to research modifications of Alberta crops to render them more diabetic-friendly, to assess how well lifestyle modifications are improving quality of life, to determine how best to deliver the message and information about lifestyle modifications, and how economically feasible these are for those with diabetes, the PANDA research project will create a ‘toolbox’ of menus for an Alberta diet and physical activities that are accessible, adequate,

Officially open since November of 2007, the ADI’s mission to foster collaboration between intellectual disciplines is already unfolding. Dr. Ron Gill calls it making room for “organized serendipity.” “It’s this multidisciplinary approach to research that puts the Alberta Diabetes Institute in the best possible position to make a real difference for people living with diabetes.