“It’s an optimistic time for people with type 1” – Morgan Shaw, a Grand Challenge researcher who has type 1

February 1, 2024
A photo of Morgan Shaw wearing a lab coat in a lab and holding up her insulin pump.

Research Technician Morgan Shaw has type 1 diabetes and is working in Dr James Cantley’s lab at the University of Dundee, which is funded by his Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Senior Research Fellowship. Morgan tells us how collaboration, ambition and people with type 1 are at the heart of the Grand Challenge.

My type 1 diabetes

I was diagnosed with type 1 when I was 14, just before my first GCSE exam. My Dad researches type 1 diabetes and my mum lives with type 1, so they caught my symptoms of weight loss and extreme thirst before any permanent damage was caused. I’m currently using a closed loop system to manage my type 1 and I really like it. The system reduces the burden of type 1 and the variability in my blood glucose levels. This technology means I can get on with my day and work as anyone else would except for having a can of cola on my desk. The pump has also made my condition less visible to my colleagues as I don’t have to treat my hypos as often or give myself insulin injections.

Helping others with type 1

I’ve always been interested in science. At first, I wanted to be a vet, but having my own medical conditions pushed me to human science and helping other patients. I really enjoy being a lab technician because it’s a more hands-on approach to science. I like working with my hands and having a routine in the lab. Despite not being in direct contact with patients, I still have a sense that I’m helping other people living with type 1.

Giving our research perspective

Having diabetes and working on a type 1 specific project is really exciting. It gives me a different view and helps me focus on what people with type 1 need and want. It also helps me motivate the research team during long, hard lab days because knowing the end goal pushes us through. As a biomedical research lab, working with cells, tissues and models, we can feel separate from patients but having my perspective helps us. For example, I help scientists who aren’t used to speaking directly to people with type 1 to make sure the language they use in their presentations has the sensitivity and best phrasing for people with diabetes to read.

Teamwork in the Grand Challenge

I love working with the team in Dr James Cantley’s lab. We have lots of collaborators with different expertise working on different projects, so I get to see the other research taking place. We have lab meetings every week and scientific journal clubs to discuss newly published research papers. The Grand Challenge has a really collaborative feel, and we’re invited to attend a variety of different meetings. I’ve been given lots of responsibility as a technician and treated the same as the postdoctoral researchers, which isn’t always the case in other labs. James appreciates that we need a range of people with a variety of diverse opinions to achieve the most success.

Boosting Scottish diabetes research

It’s great to see a Northern lab in the UK being recognised by the Grand Challenge and receiving this funding. I wanted to work in Scotland and have been following James Cantley’s research closely. In my previous lab, I gained experience processing and studying human pancreatic organs generously donated for diabetes research.  In James’ lab, we use a range of different cell and tissue approaches to progress our research, which means we can work faster and more flexibly towards new treatments.

Regrowing a person’s own beta cells

We’re studying pancreatic cell types which don’t make insulin to explore whether these can be converted into insulin-producing cells in people with type 1. The lab is exploring how the insulin-producing beta cells are related in embryos to another pancreatic cell type – the ductal cell. Dr Lisa Logie (a postdoctoral researcher) and I are optimising ductal cell isolation and culture, before other scientists in our team will add different drugs to see if they can transform them into beta cells.

A great research opportunity

I was following the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge before I started working in James’ lab. It’s a very exciting time for type 1 diabetes research. The unprecedented amount of funding very generously invested by the Steve Morgan Foundation is making science a lot more open and available to more people. Being an early career researcher, working on this high-profile project is a great opportunity for me to learn new techniques and become more specialised. I’ll be working on this research project for its five-year duration. This gives me job security and the chance to focus and commit to this one project, which is very unusual in academic research.

A cure for type 1 diabetes

No one person with type 1 is the same as another, so we need to make sure there are treatment options for everyone. To me, a real cure for type 1 would be not having to administer insulin or wear a pump. I want to have a normal experience of life without having to think about type 1 with every aspect of my day.
Developing a cure for type 1 is the goal, but in the short-term, we need to keep making progress towards better quality of life for people with type 1. Making inulin pumps more sensitive and reducing the amount of insulin needed would be helpful, which is where the novel insulins strand of the Grand Challenge comes in.

Five-year research plan

Over the next five years it will be important to test different ideas, to evaluate which work and which don’t so that we can adapt our thinking and move forward towards our goal.  Our aim is to develop a new treatment concept for type 1 by the end of the current Grand Challenge Fellowship, which we hope will then progress toward clinical trials.

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