Meet the Endocrinologist: Stafford Lightman, expert on regulation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis

Meet Stafford Lightman, Professor of Medicine at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on understanding the role of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in health and disease, and in particular its interface with stress and circadian rhythms and its effects mediated through glucocorticoid signalling. He has been awarded the SfE Medal and will be delivering his Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018, 19-21 November in Glasgow. In our latest interview, he tells us more about his career, research and what he is looking forward to at the SfE BES 2018 conference.

*Prof Lightman is pictured at the Goroka Festival, Papua New Guinea’s equivalent of Glastonbury! 

Can you tell us a little about your current position and research?

When I was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Bristol, very little endocrine research was going on there, which had the great advantage of providing me with a clean slate and the ability to develop my own research theme. Now I have a lab group that ranges from the very basic cell and molecular science through physiology, right up to clinical research. I really enjoy being able to translate up to humans and then back translate down again to animal models. Having a group of scientists and clinicians working together is a really exciting environment to work in.

Can you tell us a little about what inspired you into endocrinology?

I was always interested in human biology and my earliest research was in anthropology, which naturally led into human behaviour and to neuroscience. I initially wanted to be an academic clinical neurologist but at that time neurology research centred around the peripheral nervous system, and I was interested in the brain! The one way I could investigate brain function was through the window of hypothalamic-pituitary function, therefore I became a neuroendocrinologist. Since then I have been working at the interface of endocrinology and neuroscience, which I find fascinating.

What you are most proud of in your career so far?

I am most proud of the people that I have helped to train, who have gone on to do well afterwards. It is also really rewarding to have set up lots of collaborations with mathematicians, and fascinate them in the dynamics of hormones. They have of course also been very both for me and the subject, developing   the concept of hormone dynamics. With the exception of GnRH, endocrinology was often considered a homeostatic but relatively static science, where hormone levels are measured and found to be either too high or too low. This is clearly far from reality and trying to bring the idea of dynamic hormonal systems into the mainstream is something I have been very involved with.

Tell us what you enjoy about your role as President of the British Neuroscience Association (BNA)?

I love meeting lots of really interesting people. The brain is such an interesting area and I enjoy understanding how it interacts with all aspects of our lives. The BNA 2019 Festival of Neuroscience will be held in Dublin on 14-17 April 2019, and will be in collaboration with the British Society for Neuroendocrinology, and include a scientific symposium sponsored by the Society for Endocrinology. So, there will also be a strong element of endocrinology running throughout the meeting. However, it is a great event for bringing together lots of diverse areas of neuroscience.

What are you presenting in your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018?

I will be discussing how aspects of HPA physiology are governed by dynamics, from the stress response to the circadian rhythm. The underlying dynamics of this system are what allow us to be flexible and to maintain a homeostatic state. I will also be talking about improved ways of diagnosing endocrine disorders. If we can harness novel technologies to measure dynamic changes in hormone levels in patients at home, we can gather much better information for diagnosis and treatment.

What are you looking forward to at this year’s conference?

From my own point of view the best part of the conference will be discussing posters with young, enthusiastic scientists right at the start of their careers. The posters are a really exciting area where people are putting out new ideas, in all areas of endocrinology. I like to be educated, so enjoy going to posters in areas where I don’t know much and hearing about what people are doing and why they find it exciting.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in endocrinology right now?

I think there are two main challenges, one of which I alluded to earlier.

  1. In terms of HPA the challenge lies around how we can measure dynamic changes in hormone levels in patients at home. I think the whole field of medicine is moving away from keeping people in hospital, to do lots of blood tests, sending them home, calling them back in to discuss results and finding you don’t have the right answer. Diagnosis can then be prolonged, inaccurate and very expensive, all of which is bad for patient care. The real challenge is finding better ways of doing this, and doing it in patients at home.
  2. Another challenge concerns the best way to give glucocorticoid replacement therapy. There is currently great debate on this in the field but it is important that we find the answer. Poorly managed glucocorticoid replacement is associated with considerable morbidity and mortality, so lots of attention is focused on finding a better way of doing it.

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

I think the ability to monitor patients’ hormone levels over a 24 hour period will be a major breakthrough, and will provide the basis for better understanding of normal physiology and better diagnostic methodologies.

We have been developing a wearable collecting device that can be worn by patients at home. Using this device, patients would need only a quick visit to have it fitted and another, 24 hours later to have it removed. This is sufficient to provide full tissue biochemistry over a 24 hour period. This would minimise the time in hospital and provide a personalised medicine approach with a wealth of data that gives an overall picture of the individual’s health. This type of approach could revolutionise diagnostics and really improve patient care.

Once we understand how to apply this technology we will have better more rational ways of targeting and timing treatments, to address the challenges mentioned in the previous question.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love the challenge of new ideas and using them to work out answers to important questions. It is also a pleasure and privilege to have the opportunity to work with great colleagues.

Who do you admire most in the world of endocrinology?

The first piece of endocrinology that ever excited me was Vincent Wigglesworth’s work on the hormone, ecdysone. He was a brilliant entomologist and his beautifully designed experiments on the extraordinary process of metamorphosis was a real eye opener. He was my first endocrine hero!

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! You really need to enjoy your work, or you should be doing something else. I describe what I do as privileged play!

You can hear Professor Lightmans’s SfE Medal Lecture, “HPA activity: Don’t forget the dynamics” on Monday 19 November, in the Lomond Auditorium at 17:30. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2018.

Meet the Endocrinologist: Ursula Kaiser, expert in neuroendocrine regulation of puberty

Meet Ursula Kaiser, Professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her research is focused on neuroendocrine regulation of puberty, reproductive health and fertility. She has been awarded the SfE International Medal and will be delivering her Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018, 19-21 November in Glasgow. In our latest interview, she tells us more about her work and what she is looking forward to at the SfE BES 2018 conference.

Can you tell us a little about your current position and research?

At Harvard Medical School and as Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I lead and direct a group of over 60 clinical and research endocrinologists at a large academic medical center. My laboratory studies the genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying the neuroendocrine regulation of reproductive development and function, with an emphasis on the mechanisms regulating gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) and gonadotropin production. We use translational approaches including clinical and laboratory observations in humans, investigations in mouse models, and molecular and cellular studies to elucidate the molecular and biological underpinnings of reproductive disorders.

Can you tell us a little about what inspired you into endocrinology?

I grew up in Canada, where I received my undergraduate degree in biology at University of New Brunswick followed by my medical degree at University of Toronto. Early in medical school, I became fascinated by the feedback loops of endocrinology and by the many systems affected by hormones, and was quickly convinced that endocrinology was my calling. I completed my clinical training and licensure in internal medicine and in endocrinology in Toronto, but became intrigued by the molecular underpinnings of endocrine disorders. I moved to Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to pursue basic science research training in the regulation of gonadotropin gene expression under the mentorship of Dr. William Chin in the Genetics Division. My initial research focused on the mechanisms of differential regulation of luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone; more recently, I have moved “further up” the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis to study the neuroendocrine regulation of GnRH secretion.

What you are most proud of in your career so far?

Scientifically, I’m most proud of our discovery that mutations in a gene known as MKRN3, or Makorin Ring Finger Protein 3, cause central precocious puberty. This was the first major genetic cause of precocious puberty to be identified and is now recognized to explain close to half of all cases of familial central precocious puberty. This discovery has identified the first known inhibitor of human GnRH secretion and has opened up an entirely new field of investigation. It is also important translationally and has highlighted the role of genetic imprinting in the control of human pubertal timing. I’m particularly proud of this accomplishment because of its collaborative and multidisciplinary nature – it has involved an international network of collaborators and has helped to launch the careers of several of our trainees.

What are you presenting in your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018?

I will be talking about our discovery of the role of MKRN3 in the timing of puberty and the link of loss of function mutations in MKRN3 with central precocious puberty.  In particular, I will expand on the studies we have performed since discovering this link in order to better understand the role and mechanisms of action of MKRN3 in puberty onset.

What are you looking forward to at this year’s conference?

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing my British and other international friends and colleagues, to catch up and hear about their new work, and to discuss ongoing and potential future collaborations. One thing that I would recommend to others is to take maximum advantage of the opportunity to catch up with new advances in their fields and to network with colleagues. It’s a great opportunity to meet new colleagues and make new connections!

What do you think are the biggest challenges in endocrinology right now?

Two of the biggest challenges in endocrinology are addressing the rising rates of obesity and diabetes mellitus. The prevalence of these metabolic disorders is rapidly increasing, not only in developed countries, but also in the developing world. We need more research to better understand the pathogenesis of these metabolic disorders. Interestingly, neuroendocrinology is increasingly recognized to play a key role in metabolic disorders, with neuropeptides and neural circuits playing key roles both in appetite and energy homeostasis, as well as linking metabolism to other areas of physiology such as reproduction and growth.

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

I believe that neuroscience is an incredibly exciting area that is poised for major breakthroughs. The combination of advances in human genetics together with advances in our abilities to study the brain are allowing neural circuits to be mapped in detail and are leading to new discoveries in mechanisms underlying neurological and neuroendocrine diseases. I am hopeful that these advances will in turn lead to new treatments for these disorders. Endocrinology is particularly important for our understanding of sex differences in predisposition to and responses to treatments for neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In addition, advances in our understanding of neuroendocrine circuits will lead to new therapies targeting neuroendocrine pathways controlling metabolism and reproduction. The recent discovery that menopausal vasomotor symptoms (i.e., hot flashes) are mediated by the neuropeptide, neurokinin B, and that neurokinin B antagonists can effectively target and reduce the frequency of these vasomotor symptoms, is a great example of such a breakthrough.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I’m so fortunate to have one of the best jobs in the world! My work is intellectually and socially stimulating. No two days are alike – between teaching students, doing research, and seeing patients, I’m learning new things every day. I have wonderful opportunities to meet and interact with a broad variety of interesting and kind people.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is a fantastic field! The diversity of endocrine disorders and the multi-system effects of hormones leads to a very integrative field that is intellectually stimulating and satisfying. There is still so much to be learned and so many research questions to be answered. Furthermore, the endocrine specialty provides the opportunity to have sustained, long-term relationships with patients and to observe the impact of treatment on their health and quality of life.

You can hear Professor Kaiser’s International Medal Lecture, “Puberty: what are the neuroendocrine triggers for the biological end of childhood?” on Monday 19 November, in the Lomond Auditorium at 14:15-14:45. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2018.

Meet the Endocrinologist: Jeremy Turner, expert in bone and calcium endocrinology

Prof Jeremy Turner is a consultant endocrinologist at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He has a particular clinical interest in calcium and metabolic bone disorders and is a convenor of the Society’s Bone and Calcium Endocrine Network.

What inspired you into endocrinology, and bone and calcium in particular?

I was fortunate enough to undertake my early postgraduate training in endocrinology at the (then) Royal Post Graduate Medical School/Hammersmith Hospital in the mid-1990s, where I worked with some inspirational colleagues in the bone and calcium field. I then went on to undertake an MRC clinical training fellowship in Raj Thakker’s lab in Oxford. The latter experience firmly cemented the place of calcium and bone endocrinology in my endocrine repertoire.

Can you tell us a little about your current work?

I have been consultant endocrinologist for the last 9 years in Norwich and was more recently promoted to honorary professor at the Norwich Medical School. I run the clinical metabolic bone/calcium service in Norwich with my great friend and colleague Professor Bill Fraser. We have established a good reputation for our clinical service and referrals come in from far and wide. We provide over 120 consultant delivered lists per annum and have succeeded in getting Norwich recognised as a Paget’s Association Centre of Excellence.

Historically, bone and calcium disorders have been somewhat “Cinderella” conditions in the wider context of endocrine services and I particularly enjoy advocating for this population of patients and developing services in this area. I am medical advisor to Hypopara UK and of course promote the charity and its work to our large population of hypoparathyroid patients. I have led the writing of a number of clinical guidelines including a post-operative hypocalcaemia avoidance and management guideline, have developed services such as a one-stop osteoporosis clinic and am currently working with colleagues in Cambridge to set up a rare bone disease network in the East of England. Naturally, the achievement I am proudest of is being appointed as a network convenor for the Bone and Calcium Endocrine Network of the Society for Endocrinology!

Over the last decade or so, what do you think have been the most useful/impactful advances in bone and calcium?

As a pure endocrinologist, the single most exciting advance has been the arrival of recombinant human parathyroid hormone (PTH) for the treatment of hypoparathyroidism. Finally, clinical endocrinologists now have a “full set” of replacement hormones to use in hormone deficiency states and this day has been a long time coming. However, no answer to this question would be complete without reference to the arrival of the many new therapies for osteoporosis and perhaps, as importantly, the expansion in understanding of treatment of osteoporosis that has occurred in recent years. This has included appreciation of risks of treatments as well as benefits, how to use the different therapies, where they fit in relative to each other, the growing use of bone markers, fracture risk calculators and so on – all of which are driving more nuanced, considered and targeted clinical approaches to treatment of osteoporosis.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by endocrinologists?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge faced by all endocrinologists has to be management of remorselessly growing demand. The population is expanding and ageing and at the same time more treatments are available across endocrinology. Awareness is growing amongst patients and general practitioners and thus referral rates are rising. This is a good thing, it means that our specialty is able to help more and more people for whom perhaps help was not always available in the past and also means that the place of endocrinology in clinical medicine as a whole is better recognised and appreciated. However, it is up to us to manage this demand, find new ways to see and treat as many people as possible and to modernise aspects of our practice. Not changing how we work is probably not an option!

Are there any controversies in bone and calcium endocrinology?

Of course there are many controversies but one of the greatest at the moment is probably the recent recognition of the end-of-treatment effect of anti-RANK ligand therapy whereby fracture rates may rise quite fast in some patients upon withdrawal of this therapy. This is a very pressing clinical challenge as numbers on this exciting and novel treatment are quite large, we have been using this for a period of time that means that some are already arriving at what was originally intended to be the end of treatment but now we know that simply stopping the treatment is probably not the best option for many patients. At the same time, there is a relative lack of evidence base to inform us with regard to what we should be doing next. While it is helpful that some guidance is beginning to emerge, this is largely based on expert opinion and it will be very interesting to see how this controversy unfolds over the next few years.

What do you enjoy about being an Endocrine Network convenor?

 So far it is early days but I am enjoying working with my co-convenor (Caroline Gorvin), with colleagues in the society and am looking forward to playing my own very small part in further raising the profile of bone and calcium medicine and research within endocrinology.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?

Yes, this is perhaps the easiest question; Enjoy your endocrinology! If you are enjoying your clinical practice you will be happy and more importantly your patients will be happy, correctly diagnosed and correctly treated.

 

The Endocrine Networks are platforms for knowledge exchange and collaboration amongst basic and clinical researchers, clinical endocrinologists and endocrine nurses. The Networks enable members to discuss and find solutions to challenges within their specialist field.

To join an Endocrine Network login to the ‘My profile’ section of the Members’ Area and select ’Endocrine Networks’.

Meet the Endocrinologist: Dr Scott MacKenzie, expert in adrenocortical biology

Scott MacKenzie is a lecturer at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Dr MacKenzie’s research focuses on adrenocortical production of the steroid hormones, aldosterone and cortisol, and investigates how genetic variability can affects their involvement in causing high blood pressure. In this interview, he tells us more about his research, career path and his role as an Adrenal and Cardiovascular Network convenor.

What inspired you into endocrinology, and why adrenocortical research in particular?

I got into endocrine research by chance. I was studying for an undergraduate degree in genetics at the University of Glasgow in the mid-90s and a lecturer happened to mention that any students interested in a summer research project should go and see John Connell. Everything came from that. Professor Connell, alongside Robert Fraser and Eleanor Davies, was particularly interested in aldosterone secretion by the adrenal gland and the genes that regulated it. At that time, there was also emerging evidence that other tissues including the brain were making aldosterone, so I was set to work on that through a Society for Endocrinology Summer Studentship. Unfortunately, the 8-week project went extremely smoothly, generating some nice data and giving me completely unrealistic expectations of scientific research! On the basis of this, I was then offered a PhD project in the same lab devoted to investigating extra-adrenal production of aldosterone in the rodent brain. I continued researching in this area, but over the years, I came to the conclusion that extra-adrenal production of aldosterone is unlikely to be of any physiological importance in humans. Fortunately, new questions were starting to be asked around adrenal secretion of aldosterone and I was able to apply the methods I had developed to that area. Now I am involved in projects that cover several aspects of this, with particular interest in how secretion can become dysregulated or excessive, as in primary aldosteronism (PA).

Tell us a little more about your current research?

I’m currently involved in various projects examining aspects of aldosterone secretion, which I think is an interesting and important field of endocrinology that has an impact on the cardiovascular health of large sections of the population. My current work includes aldosterone regulation by microRNA, analysis of common genetic polymorphisms that might predispose large sections of the population to PA (and therefore hypertension), and the identification of circulating biomarkers that might aid in the earlier and more accurate diagnosis of different forms of endocrine hypertension. The things I tend to be most proud of are the little bits of problem solving that arise in the course of lab work. I was quite pleased with a slightly obscure method I developed to confirm the unequal expression of two different forms of the highly similar CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 genes.

What do you think will be the next big or important breakthrough in adrenocortical research?

The discovery that the majority of aldosterone-producing adenomas contain mutations at one of just a few key genes encoding ion channels was really a big breakthrough that advanced our understanding of the pathophysiology underlying the majority of PA cases. At the same time, improvements in diagnostic testing for PA are revealing it to be far more common than we had previously thought. I think this will lead to a redefinition of PA to some extent, as we identify mechanisms that result in aldosterone hypersecretion under certain environmental circumstances or in certain sections of the population who are genetically predisposed to respond in this manner. Ultimately, this could result in better diagnosis and more targeted treatment for endocrine-related hypertension.

I’m currently very interested in the impact of environmental and physical stress on aldosterone secretion. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis has long been thought to regulate aldosterone secretion in a very limited manner, but recent clinical studies suggest a sizeable minority of hypertensive individuals react to stress by producing high levels of aldosterone. Understanding what predisposes these people to respond in this manner is, I believe, of great importance and could have major implications for how we react to stressful situations in everyday life and its impact on our cardiovascular health.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by academic research?

I think the greatest challenge in current scientific research doesn’t apply to any one field but to us all. That is how we ensure that young researchers­­ coming through – particularly basic scientists – have a viable and stable career structure that enables them to progress and thrive in an academic environment. A lot of time, money and training is being invested in these people, but too many are being lost to science as they become disenchanted by successive short-term contracts and the uncertainty surrounding a career in scientific research. I think it is incumbent on older scientists to recognise just how much the career prospects and funding structures have altered in recent years, and to use whatever influence we have to push for greater early career support at institutional and national levels.

Are there any controversies in your research area? How do you think they will be resolved?

There are certainly controversial areas in my field; some may argue with my opinion that extra-adrenal aldosterone production in humans is of no importance. Others (if the comments on my recent grant proposal are anything to go by) will disagree with my assertion that stress is an important factor in aldosterone secretion. But, ultimately, any scientific disputes will be resolved as they have always been: by well-designed and well-executed experimental study.

What do you enjoy about being an Endocrine Network convenor, and how do you think it may benefit others?

I think that Endocrine Networks have tremendous potential to provide opportunities for researchers, particularly those in their early careers, by enabling them to gain supportive and informed advice from more senior members. I hope we are able to build a vibrant online community that is complemented by ‘real-life’ meetings, such as the Research Incubators at the SfE BES 2017 conference, which proved an excellent forum for researchers to get feedback on projects under development. Ultimately, the success of these initiatives depends on its participants, so I would urge all members in relevant areas of research to sign up to a network and get involved.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinology researchers?

Although I think opportunities are harder to come by now than they were in ‘my day’, young researchers can still distinguish themselves from their peers in the same ways. That means taking every opportunity to make themselves known to prospective employers and supervisors (the dreaded ‘networking’) while at the same time not being too discouraged by the high number of rejections that almost inevitably follow. It also means exploiting opportunities that organisations like the Society for Endocrinology make available to them, such as Travel Grants, Early Career Grants and Career Development Workshops. Applying for these or getting involved with the Networks or the Early Career Steering Group can be an excellent way to develop your research and get your name known in endocrine circles.

The Endocrine Networks are platforms for knowledge exchange and collaboration amongst basic and clinical researchers, clinical endocrinologists and endocrine nurses. The Networks enable members to discuss and find solutions to challenges within their specialist field.

To join an Endocrine Network login to the ‘My profile’ section of the Members’ Area and select ’Endocrine Networks’.

The conference that stirred my scientific passions (and got me a cool mug!)

What to expect from SfE BES as an Early Career researcher / medical trainee

Scientific conferences are not just an unparalleled opportunity to dive deeper into what’s going on in your specialty. Much more importantly, they are where the little things – the random encounters, the unexpected conversations that can lead to career turning points happen. Do you remember, or can you imagine, the nervous expectation, the excitement -perhaps a tinge of bewilderment- of being there for the first time?

Matthew Sinton, PhD student in Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh attended his first ever scientific conference, SfE BES, in November 2017. Read how the experience saw him equipped with a sense of purpose, and a taster of what the endocrinology community can do for his career (and could do for yours too, if you’re an SfE BES newbie!).

Amongst the multitude of questions whirling around in my head when I started my PhD, there was one I never realised would be so important: which societies should I join? The first one recommended by my supervisor was the Society for Endocrinology, so I did my due diligence – I found out what the role of the Society was, and how it could support me throughout my PhD and my career beyond.

One of the first opportunities that I came across was the Society for Endocrinology BES Registration Grant, which is available to trainee scientists, as well as others trainees and students, and covers the cost of conference registration. The aim of the grant is to enable those who are still choosing their career paths, or are new to the field of endocrinology, to attend and hear the latest basic and clinical research in the field, and to network with both peers and experts. A few weeks after a straightforward, painless application process, I received an email confirming my award of the grant. While I was delighted about it, I also felt a little nervous – this was my first ever conference but I wasn’t presenting anything, and although I knew a few people who were also attending, they would be busy with poster presentations and meetings. How could I make use of all that spare time to wander around by myself?

As I made my way, on the train from Edinburgh to Harrogate (where the conference was being held), still feeling somewhat apprehensive, I read the conference programme again, and got my notebook out so that I could make a list of things that I would like to see. As I put this list together, a feeling of excitement overtook my nerves – there were such a range of different topics, including engaging with the media, cancer metabolism, food taxation, and alternative career paths. Thinking about opportunities for people at my same career stage, I also made a note to check out the Early Career Lounge.

Once in Harrogate, and too early to check into my hotel, I headed straight to the convention centre. I quickly registered and made my way to the main exhibition hall to see all the posters and exhibition stands. It was still very quiet, so I joined the coffee queue, with the intention of enjoying my caffeine kick whilst looking at the posters in more detail. To my surprise, however, a collaborator who I had not yet had the opportunity to meet in person, joined the queue behind me, and we got chatting. This chance encounter made me feel far more at ease, and afterwards I took the time to wander around. I stopped to check the posters I thought I would be most interested in, then headed to my first talk of choice, on engaging with the media, by Giles Yeo. Like most of the talks that I attended during the conference, it was insightful and engaging, and I really enjoyed being able to listen to experts in their respective fields discussing science and endocrinology from so many different perspectives.

The first evening of the conference I went to the Early Career Quiz, where I had been assigned a seat with people from my home institute, including other postgraduates and PIs. Although I’d seen the other postgraduates around the university, I’d never had the chance to talk to them, so this was a brilliant opportunity to get to know each other better and find out about the projects that everyone was working on. To our (brief) dismay, we didn’t do that well in the quiz, finishing slap-bang in the middle, but it didn’t matter – the evening was so much fun! That night I went back to my hotel feeling exhausted, but still managed to spare some energy to plan my next day.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast and a coffee, I walked back to the convention centre and went straight to the Early Career Lounge, to find out more about the Society and what was on offer in terms of career development. Whilst I want to stay in academia after I finish my PhD, I’m realistic enough to know how competitive it is, and that I need to develop additional skills away from the bench. At the Lounge I spoke with Matt Grant, the Society Careers and Engagement Officer. We chatted for quite a while, about opportunities within the Society, and about what I thought the Society could do to further support people at my career stage. At the end of our chat, I was feeling excited about the various events that I could attend, and Matt promised to email me with any opportunities that arose (which he did). The icing on the cake was, of course, the free Society for Endocrinology mug that I got after our chat…!

I would encourage anyone to apply for the Society for Endocrinology BES Registration Grant and attend this conference, as it really is a fantastic experience. I learned about areas of science that I would otherwise have missed, and met people that I would not normally have the opportunity to meet, including those from the institute that I’m based at! I’m really looking forward to staying involved with the Society, throughout my PhD and beyond!

 

Do you want to know more about Matthew’s unusual career path? Read how quitting his first PhD led him to refocus his career on endocrinology here.

Conference delegate SOS – help get our research proposals off the ground!

SfE BES is all about bringing endocrine professionals together to share knowledge and spark future collaborations. This year, for the first time, delegates are invited to hear specific research proposals and contribute their insights, data or resources to really help get these fledgling projects off the ground.

Here, Dr Kate Lines, from the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM), University of Oxford, talks about her proposal to be presented at an Endocrine Network Research Incubator Meeting to further understanding of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours. To complete her project, she needs SfE BES 2017 delegates to provide more patient samples!

My research mainly focuses on learning more about how pancreatic islet cell tumours (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours) grow, and using this information to develop new therapies. One specific area that has begun to interest me recently is inflammation. Inflammation is a process in which the body sends cells of the immune system (or white blood cells) to specific areas to defend against foreign substances. It has now been shown that many tumours can hijack this system by releasing chemicals to lure in white blood cells. Once the white blood cells reach the tumour they are encouraged to secrete small proteins (cytokines), which help make the perfect environment for the tumour to grow. The perfect growth environment is different for different tumours, therefore the specific white blood cells and cytokines needed by each tumour is also different. Currently, not much is known about which white blood cells and cytokines are most important for supporting pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours.

I submitted a proposal for the Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes Network Research Incubator Meeting at SfE BES 2017 that suggests examining the area around dissected tissue from pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours for these specific cells and cytokines. Once we have this information we can use it to either help diagnose the tumours (as the cytokines can be detected in the blood), or target them with specific drugs to try to make the environment less ideal for the tumour to grow. However, the trouble with pancreatic endocrine tumours is that although they can be deadly, they are also rare. This is the main stumbling block for the proposed study, as our hospital alone doesn’t have enough samples for us to be confident that the specific cells and cytokines we see are representative of those occurring in all patients.

The Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes Network Research Incubator Meeting provides a rare opportunity for us to try to access these samples from different hospitals in different locations, which ultimately could provide a set of samples that is truly representative of all the pancreatic neuroendocrine patients in the UK. Not only could the members help by providing samples for this study, but as our work continues they could also provide further samples, such as blood, for future work stemming from this proposal. I therefore hope that the other members of the network will be as interested in this area as I am and would like to provide us with lots of patient samples to investigate. In addition, as an early career researcher it is rare to get the chance to present new ideas to my peers. I am therefore looking forward to what I hope will be an exciting and stimulating discussion on a new area of research for me.

The Endocrine Network Research Incubator Meetings will take place on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November, 07:45–08:30, come along to the Endocrine Network Meeting most relevant to your research interests and read the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017 for more details.

To join an Endocrine Network login to the ‘My profile’ section of the ‘Members’ Area and select Endocrine Networks.

Meet the Endocrinologist: Interview with Prof David Hodson

Meet Professor David Hodson, Society for Endocrinology Starling Medal winner for 2017. Prof Hodson is based at the University of Birmingham, where his work investigates how failure of pancreatic beta cell function contributes to type-2 diabetes. He is particularly interested in using multidisciplinary and innovative approaches to answer these research questions, which has earned him this award, to be presented the annual conference, SfE BES 2017, in Harrogate, 6-8 November 2017. Learn more about his endocrine journey in this exclusive interview.

Q:  Tell us a little about your career so far and how you ended up in Birmingham

I originally trained as a Veterinary Surgeon at the University of Bristol, where I studied for a PhD in reproductive neuroendocrinology. Tempted by warmer climes, I then migrated to the South of France to join Patrice Mollard’s lab at the CNRS Montpellier, France. This was an exciting time when Patrice had just discovered pituitary networks, and I was lucky enough to be involved in some of the seminal work that followed. This period cemented my passion for microscopy and method development. I then took up a post as a Non-Clinical Lecturer at Imperial College London in Guy Rutter’s Section, applying optical approaches to the study of islet biology and generally learning how to survive in academia. I moved to the University of Birmingham 18 months ago through their Birmingham Fellows Scheme, convinced that the availability of world-class imaging/metabolomics and abundance of young talent would help me to push my research to the next level. Now a Professorial Research Fellow, I am tasked with the exciting role of expanding diabetes research, as well as further developing our imaging capability. This despite my initial reservations about the city following the BAFTA award-winning “Peaky Blinders”!

 Q: What more specifically are you presenting at your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2017?

It is becoming increasingly clear that, rather like society, beta cells are not equal. In fact, a small number of beta cells may be responsible for driving insulin release, as well as proliferation/renewal, similar to how just a few individuals own most of the world’s wealth. Or alternatively, how you are only ever six people away from knowing Kevin Bacon (of “Tremors” or “Footloose” fame). This is a really hot topic that challenges our understanding of how beta cells may fail (or respond to treatment) during type 2 diabetes. Therefore, I’ll talk about the recent questions that have arisen in terms of beta cell diversity, the tools we have developed to try and understand this and how this has changed our viewpoint of beta cell function under normal and diabetic conditions. There will be lots of colour, movies and practically no text.

Q: What are you particularly looking forward to at SfE BES 2017?

 My first SfE BES conference was last year and I’m a convert! It will be great to see how endocrinology is progressing in the UK and to catch up with colleagues whilst discussing research in a friendly, informal and supportive environment. In particular, I am looking forward to the “Tissue Engineering for Regenerative Medicine in Endocrinology” symposium. This holds promise not only for diabetes treatment, but also for many endocrine disorders. I’m also looking forward to the social programme. I’d be lying if I said that food and alcohol didn’t play an important role in any conference attendance!

Q: What has been your career highlight so far?

To be honest, I’m relatively new to this and the lab has been working across so many disciplines/topics that it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular highlight. I’m very appreciative that I’ve got excellent collaborators and we are just pleased to be involved in any output that falls under the ‘team science’ banner. Having said that, getting to see Wrestlemania 33 at the same time as ENDO 2017 this year in Florida has to be pretty good, right? Does this count as a career highlight?

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in your particular research area right now?

Our biggest challenge remains how to translate our basic findings on beta cell function from the bench to the bedside. We are amassing detailed knowledge regarding the mechanisms underlying insulin secretion, especially in the ‘omics era, but need to strive to harness this for therapeutic potential. On the flip side, lack of understanding about basic mechanisms will hold back progress on all fronts, so we should not make this the only criteria for our research.

Q: What are your future plans for your work & career?

Honestly, I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I’m content following up the avenues created by current research and just having fun doing what we’re doing. Maybe become a Vice-Chancellor? The pension seems decent.

Q: Who do you most admire professionally?

I have to admit that I most admire my postdocs, students and technicians. The fact that they have chosen to research diabetes with relatively little reward and in tough academic times really speaks volumes about their motivation and personalities. They do it because they love to do it. I am lucky to have such good people.

Q: Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is bound by shared mechanisms and concepts. Therefore, as a basic or clinical researcher, don’t be afraid to apply thinking from one field to another field, as well as take risks with the research. The outcome and impact can be quite dramatic compared to the high-throughput, predictable science that the funding climate seems to encourage. If someone asks you what is the point of doing this, then it’s generally a positive thing!

Q: What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

There is a realisation that current drugs are difficult to improve upon. Certainly, pharma pipelines, profits and innovation are all shrinking as the list of FDA requirements rightly grows (e.g. concerning cardiovascular safety margins). Therefore, directed or personalised treatment may represent the next breakthrough in the field, for example through production of unimolecular agonists where a few licensed drugs are ‘bolted’ together or matching patient genotype to drug efficacy.

You can hear Prof Hodson’s Society for Endocrinology Starling Medal lecture, “Next generation tools to understand endocrine function in health and disease” on Monday 6 November, 18:00-18:30, and see the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017.

 

Meet the Endocrinologist: Interview with Prof Antonio Vidal-Puig

Group Photo - June 2017

Meet Professor Antonio Vidal-Puig, endocrinologist and Society for Endocrinology Medal winner for 2017. Prof Vidal-Puig is based at the Institute of Metabolic Sciences, Cambridge University and at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where his outstanding research, focusing on the link between obesity and associated metabolic complications, has earned him this award, to be presented the annual conference, SfE BES 2017, in Harrogate, 6-8 November 2017. Learn more about his endocrine journey in this exclusive interview.

Q: Tell us a little about your career so far and how you ended up in Cambridge.

Originally from Spain, I studied medicine and trained in endocrinology at Valencia Medical School and Granada Medical School. I held post-doctoral positions in Boston at the Massachussetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital/Harvard Medical School from 1992-1999. There I had excellent mentors including Jeff Flier, Brad Lowell, David Moller and Leo Krall. This was a very intense, exciting and uncertain period, at the epicentre of major discoveries in the field of obesity. This was a period that defined my career, scientific focus, approach to science and reinforced my values. I have been developing my career in the UK, since arriving at Cambridge University in 2000, and now have an established laboratory and have become a Professor of Molecular Nutrition and Metabolism.

Q: Tell us more about your research that led to you being awarded the Society Medal

The lab is interested in why obesity results in diabetes, insulin resistance, fatty liver and ischaemic heart disease, in order to find ways of preventing these complications.

The key concept of our programme is lipotoxicity, which links obesity-related metabolic complications with the excessive accumulation of lipids outside adipose tissue, in organs including muscle, liver and heart. From the concept of lipotoxicity we have developed three main research directions:

  • understanding how the adipose tissue works, with the aim of improving its function and ensuring that lipids remain in adipose. This led to the development of our “adipose tissue expandability hypothesis”, which is now widely accepted by the scientific community
  • developing strategies to burn the excess lipids and prevent lipotoxicity through activation of brown fat
  • promoting that the quality of dietary lipids should be as healthy as possible, to prevent toxic effects.

My Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2017 will summarise our contribution to these three directions.

Q: What are you particularly looking forward to at SfE BES 2017?

I will use this conference for updating clinical aspects of my work. The presentation quality is always good and helpful. One session I am really curious about is Workshop 1: Tissue Engineering for Regenerative Medicine in Endocrinology. I think technology is essential to retain a competitive position in research and the topics presented are highly transferable and of interest. I think tissue engineering approaches to increase brown fat mass could be really helpful in preventing obesity and diabetes, I am curious about the concept and possibilities of using 3D bioprinting.

Q: What have been your career highlights so far?

I feel content about my career progression. I consider highlights to be our best pieces of research; our papers tend to be quite comprehensive and we believe they make important contributions. I think for this reason these contributions are well respected by our colleagues. Our reputation as a lab is important for us. Also as a proud introvert, I have not touted our highlights and have not needed to for our professional highlights to be widely acclaimed, however I do understand that it is important to make the public aware of their implications. Also, as a laboratory leader I know that to disseminate these highlights is important for the careers my lab members. In this respect, winning the Society for Endocrinology Medal is a highlight that reflects the quality and commitment of the present and past members of the laboratory.

At a more personal level, I admit I have an aesthetic approach to science. I enjoy understanding and identifying sophisticated mechanisms, developing models that explain reality and learning how biological systems self-regulate. I don’t think this is unusual amongst endocrinologists. Also, becoming a Professor at Cambridge University was a moment of satisfaction I shared with my colleagues and family. In some ways my career has provided me with professional freedom, which is a key value for me, beyond other motivations, such as power or fame, that I have always found energy draining and restrictive of my autonomy.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in your research area right now?

I think a big challenge in my research area, and others, is how to extract value from the excessive information generated by recent technological advances. Our challenge is how to analyse this information to prioritise the types of mechanistic validation that are necessary for estimating its relevance. Also, it is not only the amount of data, but the amount of unnecessary noise coming from poor quality research that makes this task more difficult.

Q: What are your future plans for your work & career?

As you become more senior in science, you often suffer the disadvantage that your professional horizon is shorter. However, this position also has the advantage that you can be more selective in your choice of projects, with more freedom to take risks. I think my laboratory in this respect is quite entrepreneurial, we are innovating by entering new fields/technologies, which I think is important for remaining competitive.  For example, we have opened a new lab at Sanger, funded by the European Research Council to work on stem cells and adipose tissue. We are also developing two new programmes of research; one in Nanjing focused on murine models of fatty liver, and another in Bangalore focused on adipose tissue stem cell biology to model obesity and diabetes in India. These are exciting challenges that will provide opportunities for my younger associates in their future careers.

Q: Who do you most admire professionally?

I have learned a lot from many of my mentors, colleagues and trainees. In some way these experiences have shaped my values and my strong views about science and leadership. For example, I have always admired the intellectual rigour and scientific honesty of Brad Lowell. I admired the consistency and confident leadership of Jeff Flier and the legacy of Daniel Lane, who developed many academic scientists in his lab to share his cultural values and collegiality, which they now disseminate to the next generations. I find this very impressive.

Q: Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is not a specialty that will make you rich, but it is a specialty where you can fulfill your intellectual scientific needs and enjoy the human aspect of practicing medicine. It is very satisfying because your patients get better and, given that treatments are required long term, an important factor in the success depends on establishing an empathetic relationship with them. You will get to know many of your patients well, from whom you will receive gratitude and a sense of meaning and fulfillment. In this respect it is a very rewarding profession.

Q: What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

I think real breakthrough with long term impact requires deep knowledge and new technologies, I have become quite sceptical about quick or easy breakthroughs that address complex problems. It is important to understand how regulatory systems operate, to learn what the adaptive changes of the organism or cell to maintain normality are, and to determine the intrinsic capacity of these systems to recover normality if the early factors of the disease are removed. For this reason, we focus on early disease events, aiming to prevent or reverse excessive damage to the homeostatic system and regain metabolic control. In this sense, we think it is as important to learn how the problem occurs as it is to learn the trigger and why it occurs. In our field I think understanding how lipids mediate disease could be used for prevention, early diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

You can hear Prof Vidal-Puig’s Society for Endocrinology lecture on Wednesday 8 November, 15:45-16:45, and see the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017.

Boost your confidence, collaborate and travel

The Society understands that opportunities to present your work, hear from and network with leaders in your field are invaluable for career development. But how do you find the means to attend those extremely-relevant-to-your-career conferences?

Society Travel Grants are available to fund worldwide conference travel, to help you get your work recognised on the world stage. Two previous awardees, Emma Batchen and Julie McNairn, tell us where these grants took them and how they could improve your career prospects.

  1. What do you do, and what are your areas of interest in endocrinology?
    • Emma Batchen: I’m a final year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and my research focuses on understanding the effect of antenatal glucocorticoid treatment in the maturation of the foetal heart. I want to find out the benefits of this treatment in mothers at risk of pre-term birth.
    • Julie McNairn: I am also a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and about to submit my thesis! My work – a combination of disciplines from my previous MSc, neuroscience and cardiovascular biology – investigated neuroendocrine control of salt appetite and blood pressure.
  1. How many Society Travel Grants have you received and where did they take you?
    • Emma: I have received three travel grants – two to attend SfE BES conferences in Edinburgh and Brighton, and one to go to the Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology 2016 meeting in Florence. The SfE BES conferences were ideal to get exposure to the many aspects of endocrinology, whereas the event in Florence allowed me to concentrate on the centre of my research, the heart.
    • Julie: I have received one travel grant, which I used to attend the Federation of European Neuroscience conference, FENS 2016, in Copenhagen. My work spans multiple disciplines and major conference, such as this one, allow me to present all aspects of my work and to receive input from many different angles.
  1. What did you get out the experience?
    • Emma: Presenting my work at large events has made me a more confident person. I met potential employers and collaborators in my research field, made new friends and visited places of the world I had never been to before.
    • Julie: The grant enabled me to gauge the interest of the scientific community and exchange ideas and concepts of how my work may benefit from different research directions. It also helped me build on my public speaking and public engagement skills – I spoke to a large number of European scientists about my findings and pitfalls, which helped me to see what the most engaging aspects of my work were. FENS offered amazing talks, the highlights of which were the superb presidential lectures, led by speakers with an unrivalled passion for their research.
  1. Would you apply again? If so, where are you planning to go?
    • Emma: Absolutely! I am applying to attend the next SfE BES in Harrogate.
    • Julie: I will definitely apply for another grant as soon as my thesis write-up is finished. All future plans are on hold until then!
  1. Would you recommend the grant to others?
    • Emma: Yes, because it’s a fantastic experience both personally and professionally, and you get to visit different places around the world. It’s a win-win situation!
    • Julie: Yes, it was easy to apply and I was awarded £600 to attend FENS, I would not have been able to afford the conference otherwise. Thanks to the grant, I got to talk to many other scientists about their work, which helped me appreciate the plethora of amazing research that I otherwise would have never known about.
  1. Is there anything else you would like to add?
    • Emma: These grants have definitely allowed me to grow as a PhD student and set me up for a career in research, for which I am extremely grateful to the Society.
    • Julie: The grants also give you the chance to explore new destinations. Copenhagen is a stunning city and I was fortunate enough to be able to extend my trip for a couple of days after the conference to experience some of the sights.

If your abstract has been accepted for SfE BES 2017, apply for a Travel Grant before 15 August 2017 to help cover your registration, travel and accommodation costs for the upcoming annual meeting of your Society!

Want to travel somewhere else too? Don’t fret – there are two more deadlines in December 2017 and March 2018 to attend other conferences. Members are entitled to two travel grants per year, subject to eligibility criteria.

Learning new techniques and expanding horizons in South Africa

The Society of Endocrinology is eager to help you drive your career forward and, in line with this, the Practical Skills Grant is an opportunity not to be missed. This grant enables scientists in training to visit other labs to learn new techniques, so that they can return home with an improved skill-set and plenty of research collaboration potential!

Here is the story of Dr Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, who is interested in exercise physiology, muscle biology and nutrition. In 2015, she was one of the Practical Skills Awardees and travelled to South Africa to learn a challenging lab technique from world-leading experts…

Naomi Brooks blog
Dr Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at Stirling University

“My application to the Society for Endocrinology Practical Skills grant was inspired by my previous success in winning a Society Early Career Grant. I chose Prof Kathy Myburgh’s lab, in the Physiological Sciences Muscle Group in Stellenbosch University, South Africa. I was aware that the particular technique I wished to learn was difficult and that the Myburgh Laboratory had detailed knowledge and success with it. I had previously worked with the Myburgh group as a post-doctoral fellow. Since I knew the group and identified the potential for collaboration, the choice to return to Stellenbosch was key for my career at that stage.

Stellenbosch is a beautiful town surrounded by mountains and vineyards. I was there during the spring and the weather was kind, not too hot, which allowed me to walk to work every day from my local accommodation. During my work week I would spend time in the lab, either with colleagues or writing and reflecting by myself. When away from the busyness of academia, I visited local areas and enjoyed the beautiful African outdoors and hospitality, and I still had time to write papers and put ideas together for grant applications!

The Practical Skills Grant enabled me to investigate a number of different methods for stem cell isolation and primary cell growth. I was able to see the technique demonstrated, trouble-shoot and have discussions about the procedure and its applications. As a result of this, the cell culture laboratory at my home institution is currently considering building collaborations with molecular investigators to apply the technique in our labs. I continue to build my personal and laboratory group skill-set to enhance our work, and thanks to this grant I was able to improve my academic opportunities as a researcher able to integrate both applied and basic research. The experience provided me with an integrated understanding of the technique, which will hopefully translate into more research opportunities and encourage my transition into an established researcher in the field.

When I lived in Stellenbosch as a post-doctoral fellow, I volunteered at an orphanage in Kayamandi, the local township.  I also started a community exercise programme, which was both a research and a community engagement and development programme. Returning to these places was very special. The exercise programme was still running 5 years later, and was coordinated by those working in the community garden project.

Creating and fostering networks and collaborations, both within the UK and overseas, is very important in the world of academia.  I would encourage those wishing to expand their horizons and learn new techniques to apply for the Practical Skills grant; especially amongst those early career researchers, as having “many strings to one’s bow” is important to establish a career.”  Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling.

What would you do with a Practical Skills Grant? Applications close on 31 October 2017, so better start thinking about it!