Investigator Spotlight: August 2016
Georgia Fousteri, PhD
Dr. Fousteri is a group leader at the San Raffaele Diabetes Institute in Milan, Italy. Dr. Fousteri joined nPOD in 2014.
- Tell us about your education and background – where are you from, where did you go to school?
I was born in Piraeus, Greece, but raised in one of the most beautiful islands, Santorini. I studied Biology at the University of Crete and did my Masters and PhD studies at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology of Crete. Then, I decided to take my longest and most exciting journey and become a member of M. von Herrath’s lab at the La Jolla Institute where I did my first postdoctoral studies.
- Where do you currently work and what is your position? What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
Currently I am Group Leader at the San Raffaele Diabetes Research Institute in Milan, Italy. My days at work are very intense but enjoyable. Doing science nowadays especially when you are at an early career stage is very challenging. I manage a small lab of 5 people, where I design, plan and perform experiments, analyze data and still do a lot of things that I used to while I was postdoc. Thus, the amount of work has incremented substantially in the last couple of years, but fortunately an electronic calendar keeps me organized. What an invention! I now manage my time in perfection and have less stress. I try to be a good mentor to my people, which I think is very important. Regular meetings with stimulating discussions as a group or 1-to-1 are a big priority and have produced great results.
- Why diabetes? How did you get involved in diabetes and/or what made you want to work in diabetes research?
At University I loved molecular biology. I wanted to understand in detail how cells work, communicate with each other, proliferate, get old and die. During my postgraduate studies I had the chance to rotate in a lab that was working on Immunology. I was completely enchanted by this new world and decided to remain for my Masters and PhD thesis. There, I realized that I wanted to work on autoimmunity, also because several autoimmune syndromes cluster in my family, including type 1 diabetes and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. My PhD thesis was focused on the role of TNF-a in antigen-specific tolerance in a new transgenic mouse model of type 1 diabetes. This study ignited my interest specifically in type 1 diabetes. My transfer to Matthias von Herrath’ group further fortified and nurtured this choice. The opportunity to work as a team with other nPOD investigators has been really exciting and rewarding. The progress we are making has proved that I have made a good choice in my career. I am very enthusiastic working in this field and confident that our collaborative efforts will lead in great discoveries that will change the natural history of type 1 diabetes.
- Tell us about your research.
During the past 4 years I am interested in understanding how islet-specific autoantibodies develop and whether they play any specific role in diabetes development. My studies are focused on two particular subsets of T cells, one that helps B cells to produce antibodies and another that controls this “B-cell helping” process. The first T cell subset is called “follicular helper” and it took its name simply because it can be found in the areas of the spleen and lymph nodes where B cells are present (called follicular zones) (secondary lymphoid organs have a well-defined structure with zones where T and B cells are separated from each other). The role of follicular helper T cells is to provide signals to B cells to proliferate, mature, and produce antibodies specific for the invading pathogens. However, during this “B-cell helping” process things can go wrong and autoantibodies may develop. Our immune system however, is so resourceful that things rarely go wrong and that’s because another T cell subset controls the interactions between follicular helper T cells and B cells, eliminating those B cells that are autoreactive. These cell guardians are called follicular regulatory T cells. In my lab we are studying these cells in the peripheral blood of patients with different stages of type 1 diabetes (thanks to Trialnet) and in the spleen and lymph nodes of patients (thanks to nPOD). Hopefully, our joined studies with the nPOD autoimmunity group will define whether these cells are responsible for the development of islet-specific autoimmunity. Understanding this process may lead in the development of new approaches to prevent the development of type 1 diabetes.
- What are your thoughts on the progress being made in T1D research as a whole?We have a made great progress towards understanding disease pathogenesis and particularly in calculating the risk and predicting the development of T1D. We are able to cure the disease in mouse models and translation of these studies into clinical trials has shown that we are also able to delay disease progression. This is a huge step forward compared to where we were standing ten-twenty years ago. Today, access to nPOD samples and the correct collaborative spirit shared by all nPOD investigators has opened new horizons in diabetes research. We have already seen some great discoveries and look forward to the next ones.
- Why is diabetes research so important?
Because it deals with a disease that its incidence is constantly increasing, it affects children and young adults and unfortunately has no cure. Investigators, patients and their families know how important it is to find a cure. This can only be achieved with more research.
- Do you have anything extra you would like to share? Is there anyone to thank or acknowledge?
I would like to thank my first postdoctoral mentor, Prof. Matthias von Herrath, and co-supervisor, Prof. Michael Croft. The La Jolla Institute and all the people I worked with while I was there, particularly, Amy Dave, Damien Bresson and Prof. Hilde Cheroutre. I am also thankful for my postdoctoral supervisors at San Raffaele, Prof. Maria Grazia Roncarolo and Dr. Manuela Battaglia, and the people I work with on a daily basis, particularly Tatiana Jofra. Funding from JDRF has played and still plays critical role in realizing my dream in leading and conducting meaningful and cutting-edge research in type 1 diabetes. I also acknowledge funding from the Italian Ministry of Health and other sources. Last, I am grateful for nPOD for the samples and nPOD investigators for the stimulating discussions and especially Prof. Todd Brusko for his work in our collaborative efforts.
- When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Physical activity such as gym (cardio!) or walking my dog is what relaxes me the most in everyday life. I also enjoy dancing, although I don’t practice it so much due to lack of time. Traveling is also fun. My husband and I go often on short trips in Italy and are always amazed with the places we visit. Such beautiful landscapes, so much history, so much culture! I also read a lot of books and spend significant amount of time in the weekends talking over the phone or “skyping” with my overseas relatives and friends.