Meet the Endocrinologist: Caroline Gorvin, expert in hormone receptor cellular physiology
Dr Caroline Gorvin is an Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research Career Development Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Her research focusses on the trafficking and signalling of membrane proteins, particularly GPCRs and how impairments in these proteins and their signalling pathways contribute to endocrine disease. In this interview, Caroline tells us more about her research, involvement with the Society and her roles as convenor of the Society’s Bone and Calcium Endocrine Network.
Can you tell us what inspired you into research?
My year in industry, which I spent at AstraZeneca during my undergraduate degree, really changed my perspective on research. Prior to this, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a PhD, but the experience of scientific research really ignited my interest in membrane proteins, which I have, in some way, continued to work. I accidentally became an endocrine researcher because of this initial interest in membrane proteins and receptors. I realised that genetic abnormalities in these proteins often manifest in endocrine disease, and that by studying these mutations we can learn fundamental concepts about cell behaviour that may help in the treatment of patients with endocrine disorders.
Can you tell us a little more about your current research?
In the last five years, my research has focussed on the calcium-sensing receptor (CaSR), which is a G-protein coupled receptor that has an important role in calcium homeostasis. The CaSR is a great receptor to work on because both loss-of-function and gain-of-function mutations cause disorders of calcium homeostasis, with opposite phenotypes. By studying these mutations in vitro we have been able to understand how individual residues play a role in receptor activation and mediate coupling to specific signalling pathways.
I have found my most recent research, focussed on how mutations in a subunit of the adaptor protein-2 cause hypercalcaemia really fascinating. We could never have predicted that a protein, which is known to play a fundamental role in clathrin-mediated endocytosis, would be the cause of hypercalcaemia. By studying these mutations I was able to uncover novel signalling and trafficking mechanisms of the calcium-sensing receptor, which could represent new therapeutic targets. This project also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with lots of people, and learn new techniques, which to me are the most exciting parts of being in scientific research.
Over the last decade or so, what do you think have been the most impactful advances in this research area?
I think the technological advances in the last decade have really had the most impact on all scientific research. We can now rapidly introduce specific mutations into genes, sequence the whole genome in individual patients and visualise single molecules in cells. These advances have the potential to reveal minute details about cellular and whole organism physiology, expand our knowledge of disease mechanisms and fundamentally improve patient treatment options.
What do you think will be the next big or important breakthrough in bone and calcium research?
I think long-term regenerative medicine is probably the biggest goal in bone and calcium research. With an ageing population, skeletal disorders such as osteoporosis are increasing in prevalence. While we have good therapies to manage symptoms, new technologies offer the possibility of treatments with fewer side effects. Many advances have been made in this field in recent years, and with improvements in bioengineering and iPS cell technology, long-term bone regeneration is becoming a feasible possibility.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by researchers?
I think the biggest challenge all researchers face is funding. In endocrinology, where much of the research is into rare disorders, and therefore necessarily niche, it can be difficult to persuade big funding bodies of its importance. There seems to be a wider field of competition, for an ever-decreasing pot of money. Combined with the sometimes poor career advancement opportunities, particularly for basic science researchers, I think these difficulties pose the biggest challenges rather than research specific difficulties.
Are there any controversies in your research area? How do you think they will be resolved?
There are always controversies in any research area. Instead of creating hostility, these controversies should be used as an opportunity to debate and explore new ideas. One of the fantastic things about science is that we don’t know the answers. We should enjoy exploring differing opinions through debate and further research.
You were awarded a Society Public Engagement grant in 2017, why do you think it is important for scientists to get involved?
While many people realise that scientific research takes place, what this actually entails is largely unknown. By introducing people to our work in a fun and informative way, I think we can help make this clearer and gain more support for what we do. Public engagement is really important for science and is mutually beneficial. By encouraging participation we can attract the next generation of scientists, and by sharing our ideas with the public, we may gain new perspectives to enhance our future research.
What attracted you to becoming an Endocrine Network convenor, and how do you think the Networks may benefit others?
To be honest, I was nominated for the position, and hadn’t previously considered that such a position was open to someone relatively early in their career like myself. Initially, when I first started attending the SfE BES conference as a PhD student, it really felt like bone and calcium science was a neglected part of the meeting. This has been changing in the last five years or so, with more bone and calcium research on the oral programme – but I still think research, and collaborations within the field, could be promoted more and the network is good platform for this. One way in which myself and Jeremy Turner, my co-convenor for the network, have been trying to do this is by increasing communication within the network, and giving members the opportunity to say what they want from the network. The network has great potential to generate discussion and new collaborations between basic and clinical scientists – I guess we’ll see how successful this has been at this year’s SfE BES conference!
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinology researchers?
I think the best advice for anyone in research is not to be too disheartened by failure. Just remember everyone in research will have had days where experiments failed, or had papers and grants rejected. We often don’t realise this as PhD students, but it is a valuable lesson that everyone should learn in their scientific career.
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.