Investigator Spotlight: July 2015
Noel Morgan, PhD
Dr. Morgan is the Director of the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Science within Exeter’s Medical School. Dr. Morgan joined nPOD in 2010.
- Tell us about your education and background – where are you from, where did you go to school?
I was born and grew up in the Midlands of England and went to High School in “Shakespeare” country not far from Stratford-on-Avon. On completing High School I enrolled at University in Leicester (a textile town on the Eastern side of the country) to study biological sciences and became fascinated by the underlying processes that might lead to disease. So I stayed on in Leicester and took a Ph.D. studying the regulation of insulin secretion which really stimulated my desire to follow a career in diabetes research. I had a fabulous mentor, Dr. Bill Montague, who encouraged me at every stage and arranged for me to travel to the USA as a postdoctoral fellow. I then spent more than two years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, which enthused me still further and ultimately provided the platform for me to establish my own team studying the role of beta-cell death and dysfunction in relation to diabetes. I have been fortunate to work with some extremely talented PhD students and research fellows over the years and the members of my current team continue in this tradition and are a constant source of encouragement and inspiration.
- Where do you currently work and what is your position? What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
I now work at the University of Exeter Medial School in a beautiful part of the south-west of England. I am Director of the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Science within the Medical School, and last year, we had the privilege of moving to a brand new building with state-of-the-art facilities for research. This brought together all of our clinical and scientific diabetes research under one roof and has created a genuinely international centre of excellence. My typical day involves a lot of administration as I have overall responsibility for about 35 faculty members and their research teams. However, there is always room for discussion with members of my own team and I like nothing better than to hear a knock on my door from one of them inviting me to view some of the latest results in the lab. These discussions are often highlights of the day and they keep us all on our toes.
- Why diabetes? How did you get involved in diabetes and/or what made you want to work in diabetes research?
I began my scientific career in diabetes research more than 35 years ago (surely it isn’t that long!) and have always been driven by a desire to understand what causes this illness and to help those who have it (and, if possible, to play a small part in trying to change things so that the next generation of young people don’t get type 1 diabetes). During this time, I have talked with many people who either have type 1 diabetes or who have a child with the illness, and am constantly touched by their deep desire that people should be rid of the disease. If I can make even the tiniest contribution towards the achievement of this goal, then that will be hugely satisfying.
- Tell us about your research.
It is remarkable to think that, with so many people across the world having type 1 diabetes, we still don’t really understand what happens in the pancreas to cause the disease. My team has been hugely fortunate to gain access to the world’s largest collection of pancreas samples from young people who, very sadly, died soon after diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. We are using these to try to gain a much clearer understanding of the cellular and molecular events that lead to beta-cell death. We are also really delighted to be part of the nPOD consortium and to collaborate with some of the world’s leading experts in helping to address some of the many unanswered questions about type 1 diabetes.
MHC in a type 1 diabetic isletB2M – green
MHCI – red
Insulin – light blue
DAPI – dark blue
Upregulation of both beta 2-microglobulin and Class I MHC in an insulin-containing islet from a type 1 diabetes patient from the UK T1D Biobank
B2M – green
MHCI – red
Insulin – light blue
DAPI – dark blue
PPI – green
Insulin – pink
Glucagon – red
DAPI – dark blue
- What are your thoughts on the progress being made in T1D research as a whole?I am really encouraged by the progress that is being made to understand what causes type 1 diabetes. I am also extremely heartened by the increasing willingness of so many researchers to pool resources and to bring their various scientific and clinical skills under the umbrella of initiatives such as nPOD . Ultimately, I believe that this combined effort means that there is a much greater chance that we can make a difference.
- Why is diabetes research so important?
Diabetes research is of the utmost importance. The illness is life-long and is associated with many unpleasant and debilitating complications. It is critical that we understand what causes diabetes and then make every effort to eradicate it. This has many economic and social implications but the real issue comes down to the level of the individual. Research is the only way to help individuals with diabetes – if we understand why they have the disease then perhaps we can provide much better treatments (possibly even tailor-made treatments). We may also be able to devise ways to identify people who are at risk of developing type 1 diabetes and then to intervene to stop it.
- Do you have anything extra you would like to share? Is there anyone to thank or acknowledge?
I have enjoyed my career as a diabetes researcher immensely. This is down to the wonderful people who mentored me, notably Bill Montague (whom I mentioned above) and John Exton (at Vanderbilt) who were a true and ongoing source of inspiration and encouragement. I have also worked with fantastically encouraging colleagues, including Professor Alan Foulis (Glasgow) who has provided many of the samples we study and whose rigorous approach and huge appetite to learn has taught me so much. I have also had some tremendous research fellows and, among these, I would single out Sarah Richardson, a valued colleague with whom it has been a huge pleasure to work over recent years. In addition, the support of many research funders has also been key to our progress and, among these, both Diabetes UK and JDRF have both been instrumental in helping us to achieve our research goals. Without them, our work would simply not be possible – we owe a true debt of gratitude to those who raise funds on behalf of these charities.
- When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Together with my wife, Margaret, I am fortunate to live in a very old ( 19th century!) cottage in a rural part of Cornwall, the Tamar Valley, a region designated as an “area of outstanding natural beauty”. We love to explore our surroundings both on foot and by bike. We have two married daughters who live not far away and we enjoy sharing meals and family life together with them, their partners and our two new grandsons. I am also an approved (but not-ordained) minister so I lead services in local churches very frequently. Hence, weekends are often almost as busy as work days!