Interview with diabetes researcher Maarit Oikarinen
Maarit Oikarinen is a member of Professor Heikki Hyöty´s research group in Tampere University. Lately the research group has become well-known for its breakthrough in diabetes study, hitting the headlines with their great achievement of defining the five virus types that are most likely causing type one diabetes. The researchers have developed a prototype of the vaccine against the viruses, and it has already been tested on mice, with excellent results.
Maarit Oikarinen, you are part of the research group studying diabetes and making the lately discussed striking finding. What is your part in the research group?
I am one of the research scientists in our group. My expertise is tissue analyses; I have developed different methods for the detection of enteroviruses in pancreas and other tissue samples. My everyday responsibilities include planning of the research projects, supervising the laboratory work, analyzing the results, and writing scientific articles and other reports. I am also attending a few annual scientific meetings and conferences in Finland and abroad, where we are presenting our projects and results to our colleagues and collaborators and planning future projects. One important part of my work is to supervise students who come to our group to do their Master’s thesis or other work. I am also finishing my own PhD studies and hoping to finalize them later this year.
What is your background in medical research field?
I am a Master of Science in cell biology from University of Jyväskylä, Finland. I have also studied molecular biology, biochemistry, biotechnology and sports medicine. I moved to Tampere eleven years ago to do my Master’ thesis, and after that I started the work in Heikki’s group.
What in your opinion it requires from a research group to make important findings in medical research field? What kind of expertise is needed? What kind of other resources are needed?
I think first of all it requires hard work and novel ideas. In science, the achievements require a long-term research behind them. You have to be a team player and have good collaborators. If you think about for example vaccine development, it is a long (at least ten years’) process and requires thorough efficacy and safety trials, which in turn requires financial recourses as well.
What kind of importance has international connections to your research work? Do you cooperate with other research groups?
International collaboration is extremely important in our work. One great example of that is the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD) study which is a collaborative research project including the best experts all over the world studying the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes. This project provides investigators tissue samples from diabetic organ donors which can be utilized in different projects aiming at understanding the mechanisms leading to diabetes. This nPOD project is coordinated by the administrative core located at the University of Florida and we have our annual meetings of this project in Florida.
We are also a coordinator of a large European collaborative project called Persistent Virus Infection in Diabetes Network (PEVNET), which also aims at confirming the suggested role of enteroviruses in the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes.
Some questions concerning your group´s new discoveries in diabetes study. How did you first found out it might be virus causing type 1 diabetes?
The connection between enteroviruses and type 1 diabetes has been studied for decades. The first reports showing the connection were already published in 1969. Since that, many epidemiological studies have suggested the role of these viruses in the development of type 1 diabetes; patients who develop type 1 diabetes have these virus infections more frequently than control subjects. There are over one hundred different enterovirus serotypes, and we have now been able to identify a group of a few serotypes which are the best candidates for risk viruses. Now that we have narrowed down the number of risk viruses, it is possible to develop a vaccine against those certain viruses.
Although the connection between enteroviruses and type 1 diabetes has been well established, enteroviruses might not solely explain the disease onset. However, enteroviruses are contributing to a significant amount, 50 % or even more, of the disease cases.
Can the vaccine be used for people already having type 1 diabetes? If not, do you think the findings will provide help for the treatment of diabetes as well?
This is a preventive vaccine and doesn’t help people already having type 1 diabetes. This vaccine includes inactivated particles of the certain risk viruses and when the vaccine is administered, our immune system develops antibodies against these viruses. Subsequently, the virus infections leading to the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells will be avoided.
Type 1 diabetes has earlier been defined as an autoimmune disease. Do you think that the research of other autoimmune diseases will benefit from your study as well?
The mechanisms by which enteroviruses cause beta cell destruction are not fully understood. There is still an autoimmune element present; our own immune cells are activated as a consequence of viral infection and destroy the beta cells. This is a complicated chain of events including interplay between enteroviruses and our own genetic and immune system.
What will be the next steps in the research of type 1 diabetes? When do you think you are able to start the tests on human?
Now that we have defined the possible risk viruses, we can develop more specific methods to detect these viruses and to better understand and confirm their role in the development of type 1 diabetes. As to vaccine development, the mouse tests have been very promising and the next step is to find funding to start the clinical trials on humans. It is estimated that the clinical trials cost 700 million euros which is such a big amount of money that it requires many international foundations and other sponsors. However, we are optimistic that we can gather the required finding and will be able to continue to human trials.
We are hoping the best future for the research group in their developments in medical field. To support the studies or ask for the possibility for co-operation, please contact Heikki Hyöty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article about the breakthrough in diabetes study can be found at http://www.goodnewsfinland.com/archive/news/finnish-diabetes-breakthrough-boost-prospects-for-vaccine/.
More information on Heikki Hyöty´s Research Group: http://www.uta.fi/med/tutkimus/tutkimusryhmat/virologia2.html
To read more about nPod research, please visit http://www.jdrfnpod.org/
PEVNET-project web page http://www.uta.fi/med/pevnet/index.html