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28 June 2017

Movers & Shakers

Meet Dr Joana Gaspar, young researcher in diabetes

Joana GasparOn 5 November 2014, Dr Joana Gaspar of the Chronic Diseases Research Center (CEDOC) of the NOVA University of Lisbon (Portugal) was presented with the 2014 IDF Europe Prize in Diabetes for Young Researcher at an award ceremony at the European Parliament in Brussels. The prize was awarded in recognition of her outstanding scientific work in the field of cellular and molecular biology of diabetes.

From the start of her career, Dr Joana Gaspar has become passionate about understanding the complexities of the inner workings of diabetes in the body. “Diabetes is the most common endocrine disorder, affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In Portugal alone, diabetes affects more than one in ten adults”, she says. “What is really worrying is that half of the people living with diabetes are undiagnosed. Despite the considerable scientific effort to understand diabetes, there are still many aspects we do not fully understand about this chronic condition, and we still have no cure”, she adds. “Any small discovery can have a tremendous impact on patients’ lives, especially because diabetes is a silent, multifactorial disease that affects all organs.”

Dr Gaspar is currently involved in translational medical research, a joint collaboration between CEDOC and the Education and Research Centre of the Portuguese Diabetes Association. “Our main goal is to unravel new physiological factors that increase insulin sensitivity, in order to help prevent or overcome the initial insulin resistance associated with the development of type 2 diabetes,” Dr Gaspar explains.

To this end, her research team is studying the feeding signals which trigger insulin sensitivity in response to nutrients. The liver is a key organ in the mediation of these feeding signals, as as it allows cells to better absorb insulin in the skeletal muscles, heart and kidneys. Recent studies indicate that, when insulin is broken down in the liver, it leads to the production of new molecules that increase insulin sensitivity. These molecules in turn contribute to the re-balancing of blood glucose levels after a meal.

“We are studying the feeding signals in a group of siblings of people with type 2 diabetes. These individuals are a very important target group, as they have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” Dr Gaspar comments. “By better understanding how these feeding signals work, and by isolating the factors that increase insulin sensitivity, we can help develop new treatments that could prevent the development of type 2 diabetes, or increase the chances of remission.”

Handing over the prize to Doctor Gaspar at the awarding ceremony in the European Parliament, João Nabais, President of IDF Europe, said: “We are pleased to hand over the prize to Dr Joana Gaspar. Her remarkable scientific work is a major contribution to improving the lives of people with diabetes.”

Joana Gaspar was present to receive the award personally. “It is an honour for me to receive this prize. More than the recognition of my work, it is also a recognition of the hard work of all the people I am working with and who are making these discoveries possible. It motivates us to do more to understand diabetes, improve the lives of people living with this condition, and ultimately help find a cure,” she said.