Sarah Richardson – University of Exeter

Dr Sarah Richardson is based at the University of Exeter, where she is investigating the role of viruses in type 1 diabetes

Dr Richardson is studying whether a particular group of viruses, known as enteroviruses, can be detected in the pancreas of people with type 1 diabetes. She also aims to investigate the beta cell’s and the immune system’s responses to infection by enteroviruses.

Dr Sarah Richardson

How did you get involved in type 1 research?

When I started working with Professor Noel Morgan in 2007, I knew relatively little about Type 1 diabetes. However, under the guidance and mentorship of Noel and Professor Alan Foulis, a pathologist from Glasgow, my knowledge, interest, passion and enthusiasm to understand this disease increased exponentially. Alan was, before his time, recognising that the only way we would understand the disease was to look in the target organ – the pancreas, soon after diagnosis. Thankfully these samples are rare as doctors are now good at spotting the signs of diabetes.

Despite the difficulties in accessing these samples, Alan went through the painstaking process of identifying individuals under the age of 19 years in the UK, who had sadly died with a diagnosis of diabetes and had an autopsy performed.  He then single-handedly collected together over 160 of these pancreas samples from hospitals right around the UK and screened them to determine which could be useful for future research. His landmark studies of this material are still regularly quoted today. Following his retirement, these samples were transferred to the University of Exeter Medical School and it is these, alongside samples from the JDRF supported network of Pancreatic Organ Donors (nPOD) in the USA, that we use to develop our understanding of the disease process.

Has JDRF’s support made a difference to your research?

Absolutely! JDRF have funded the majority of my work over the years. They have been hugely supportive and have through their JDRF Discovery Days, their Patron Events and the Type 1 Diabetes Research Roadmap project they have shown me the real ‘human’ side of diabetes. Putting me in touch with individuals with diabetes, their families and other diabetes researchers continually inspires me to work hard and to try and make a difference.

What keeps you motivated in your work as a scientist?

When I started my postdoc, one of my first tasks was to catalogue the tissue samples within the laboratory. I vividly remember writing down the details of children who had sadly passed away after diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. I had just had my first little girl a few months beforehand, and I recall a huge sense of sadness at this loss of young lives. It was at that point I said to myself that I would do all I could to use these samples to learn as much as possible about this devastating disease.

Since then I have met many people with type 1 diabetes and have seen and heard about the huge impact it has on both the individual and their families.  I feel that by developing a better understanding of the disease we will, in the end, pave the way to improved treatment and perhaps in the future its prevention altogether.

What is your hope for your research in the future?

My hope is that our research, through developing a better understanding of the disease, will aid in the development of more patient specific treatments and better clinical trial design. For example, our work on the pancreatic immune processes in type 1 diabetes has demonstrated that children under the age of 7 years old appear to have a very different disease profile when compared to those diagnosed after the age of 13. This has important implications for the way we currently design new therapeutic clinical trials.

Our results suggest that some therapies may be more beneficial for younger children, but these are currently being tested in older patients in which they may not be as effective. These may lead to some new therapies being discarded before being tested in the younger patients in which they may show more promising results.

Equally, therapies that work well in older individuals may not work as well in children. Finally our work examining whether enteroviruses could trigger type 1 diabetes in genetically susceptible individuals, could result in the production of vaccines and /or anti-virals that could prevent or slow progression of the disease in the future.

When not in the lab, how do you spend your free time?

My husband Ben and two daughters, Molly and Meredith, keep me very busy outside of work. We enjoy cycling, canoeing, body boarding and other outdoorsy type (!) pursuits.