Investigator Spotlight: December 2015
Teresa Rodriguez-Calvo, DVM, PhD
Dr. Rodriguez-Calvo is an instructor, working with Dr. Matthias von Herrath at La Jolla Institute.
- Tell us about your education and background – where are you from, where did you go to school?
I was born in Madrid, Spain. I knew very early in life that I was interested in science. I remember when my parents bought a game that included a small microscope and suggestions on how to explore the microscopic world, so even as a kid I was already using a microscope! I also liked minerals, rocks and everything related to nature and animals. I had some problems trying to decide if I wanted to study biology, medicine or veterinary medicine. In the end I studied Veterinary Medicine at Complutense University in Madrid. I spent my last two summers there working as an intern at the Research Center for Animal Health (CISA) (a BSL-3 facility) and at a microbiology lab at Madrid’s military base. During these internships I discovered my passion for viruses and ended up completing my Ph.D. in Veterinary Sciences at the Research Center for Animal Health (CISA) in Madrid. My Ph.D. was focused on Immunology and Virology. I studied the immune response against Foot-and-Mouth Disease Virus and Bluetongue Virus, and examined the role of dendritic cells during the course of infection. After completing my Ph.D., I moved to the U.S., where I joined Matthias von Herrath’s laboratory at La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in California.
- Where do you currently work and what is your position? What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
I am currently working at La Jolla Institute where I recently transitioned from a postdoc position to instructor. Depending on the day, my time is split between computer and lab work. I love doing experiments so I try to balance the week out so I don’t get stuck on the computer for too long. My research is focused on pancreatic tissues obtained through nPOD. We perform stainings and analyze pancreata using different microscopes and software programs that allow us to study the distribution of certain cell types in both endocrine and exocrine pancreatic tissue. Some weeks I also attend seminars, webinars and conference calls. Communication is essential in science and I really enjoy sharing data and discussing the most recent findings with other nPOD investigators. For me, having the opportunity to study human samples is very motivating because I know that every small detail improves our understanding of type 1 diabetes (T1D), which is necessary to improve the life of those with type 1 and ultimately find a cure.
- Why diabetes? How did you get involved in diabetes and/or what made you want to work in diabetes research?
During my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to study the immune response to viral infections in animals but I was always interested in working in human immunology. I chose the U.S. for my postdoctoral period because I wanted to live in another country, work with people from all around the world, and perform high quality research. La Jolla Institute is an elite research center in this regard. My Ph.D. supervisor at my former institute (Dr. Noemi Sevilla) did her postdoc at Scripps Research Institute in Professor Michael Oldstone’s laboratory where she also met Dr. Matthias von Herrath. She introduced me to him and I started following Matthias’ research and learning about autoimmunity and diabetes. I have been working at La Jolla Institute for almost 4 years now and the experience has been great so far! There are so many things that we don’t understand about T1D, so every day I push myself harder in order to get answers and contribute a little piece to this complex puzzle.
- Tell us about your research.
Thanks to the nPOD program, we can study pancreas, spleen and lymph node tissue from donors with type 1 diabetes in order to determine if the T cells identified in mouse models (T cells reactive against beta cell proteins or autoreactive T cells) are also responsible for beta cell destruction in humans. I focus on the distribution of CD8 T cells, the main cell type implicated in the destruction of beta cells. We have found that these cells infiltrate the exocrine pancreas in high numbers and we are very interested in a possible contribution of the exocrine pancreas to the pathogenesis of the disease. In addition, we are also trying to elucidate whether viral infections make islets more accessible for these destructive autoreactive T cells or vice versa.
- What are your thoughts on the progress being made in T1D research as a whole?
A better understanding of how T1D develops is the first step to new therapies. Our knowledge of T1D in humans was based on samples recovered and studied many years ago. Mouse models of the disease have been a very useful tool for the past 30 years, but now we know that humans show different islet architecture and islet cell distribution compared to mouse islets. These differences might have impacted therapeutic outcomes, which worked well in mouse models but frequently do not translate to humans, and might explain why we are unable to develop efficient new therapies. Mouse models are still valuable, but nPOD is a key element in the present and future understanding of human diabetes and pancreas pathology. In addition, there are important ongoing studies that follow patients before and after seroconversion as well as during the development of the disease. These studies will have tremendous impact in the field and I believe we will see exciting scientific discoveries in the next 5 to 10 years.
- Why is diabetes research so important?
Diabetes is on the rise in the U.S. and many other developed countries. Every year we celebrate “JDRF Meet the scientists Day” at La Jolla Institute, in which families and kids with diabetes have the opportunity to interact with us (scientists) and ask questions. Those are the moments in which you realize how important it is to advance our understanding of the disease. I have participated in this event for the last three years and find it both inspiring and motivating. This year, for the first time, we decided to include a brief presentation about nPOD. We explained to the families why it is important to know more about T1D in humans and how they can contribute.
- Do you have anything extra you would like to share? Is there anyone to thank or acknowledge?
I am so proud of being part of the nPOD community! It is such a great experience to share our scientific discoveries with other colleagues in a collaborative manner. I would like to thank Alberto Pugliese, Mark Atkinson and the whole nPOD team– without their hard work, nPOD would not exist. I also would like to acknowledge JDRF for their support, as well as families and patients who donate organs and samples for research purposes. It really makes a difference for us and for the future of other patients. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. von Herrath for giving me the opportunity to join his team, for pushing me to work hard (not for high impact factor articles but for improving our understanding of the disease), finding answers, and ultimately, improving patients’ lives.
- When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
I love to go to the beach! I enjoy the sound of the ocean; it is very relaxing and makes me forget about the rest of the world. San Diego is a great city and having the opportunity to go to the beach every weekend is fantastic. I also love travelling. I have visited many places around the world but I never get tired of it. There are so many beautiful places! I also like to go out with my wonderful husband and friends, practice yoga, watch sports and I am a super soccer fan (I support Real Madrid, of course). Being a veterinarian, it comes without saying that I love animals; I had birds, rabbits, chickens, dogs, turtles and fishes in the past and now I have a corn snake at home! Lastly, I like some high adrenaline activities from time to time like rollercoasters (Six Flags is the best) and skydiving!