Early-career grants: funding to get the all-important first proof of concept

The Society for Endocrinology provides early-career grants to support its members in a number of ways. In this article, Kerry McLaughlin explains how the grant helped her search for an elusive autoantigen, which made a splash on the BBC news page earlier this year.

Dr Kerry McLaughlin PhD JDRF Research Fellow
Dr Kerry McLaughlin, JDRF Research Fellow

 People who have type-1 diabetes lose the ability to control blood sugar levels because of the destruction of insulin-producing cells in their Islets of Langerhans. We know this is because the immune response targets four specific proteins (known as autoantigens), and while the fifth major autoantigen has been known to exist for over 20 years its identity was unknown.

Technical limitations at the time made it impossible to identify the fifth autoantigen, but we used a combination of biochemical techniques alongside high-tech mass spectrometry to discover that this fifth major autoantigen was tetraspanin-7, at last providing a complete picture of the immune targets in type-1 diabetes.

This discovery can now be used to help identify those at risk of future disease development through the detection of antibodies to tetraspanin-7, and to further research into strategies aimed at blocking the immune response to the major autoantigens in order to prevent the disease altogether.

This research came about as a result of work we were doing with a separate autoantigen (IA-2). My postdoctoral supervisor, Dr Michael Christie, was involved in earlier efforts to identify the fifth major autoantigen, and we realised that we could apply the technology developed for IA-2 for this purpose.

This was where the Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology came in and provided some much needed resource to kick-start the project. While it took a little bit more time and effort to finally identify tetraspanin-7 as our elusive fifth autoantigen, this early funding was instrumental to the project’s successful completion.

I have since been awarded a 3-year fellowship by JDRF to continue my research into tetraspanin-7 in the laboratory of Professor Patrik Rorsman FRS, FMedSci at the University of Oxford. We published our study in Diabetes, and it was covered in the mainstream media by the BBC, at one point trending in the top 10 news articles, as well as by the Huffington Post. It was great to have the opportunity to share our research with the wider public, and I was very motivated to see how interested people were in hearing about scientific advances.

For young researchers, getting enough preliminary data to put together a competitive grant application for a major funding body can be tricky. The Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology provides postdocs with the opportunity to explore a new avenue of research and can be used to provide that all-important first proof-of-concept.

The second advantage to this scheme is that it gives early-stage researchers a chance to go through the process of preparing an application for funding as well as managing an award,  but on a much smaller scale and without the heavy administrative burden of larger grants. I would certainly recommend the scheme to those keen to take the first step towards an independent career in research.

Kerry McLaughlin, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, was awarded her PhD in Immunology from King’s College London in collaboration with The Pirbright Institute. She then spent six years as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr Michael Christie at King’s College London before taking up a JDRF fellowship at the University of Oxford in 2016.

For details on how to apply for our Early Career Grant, visit our website. The next deadline for applications is 27 November 2016.

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