Meet the Grand Challenge’s Senior Research Fellows

We spoke to Dr James Cantley, Dr Vicky Salem and Professor Sarah Richardson, the first Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge funded researchers, to find out about their progress so far, their research careers, and their lives outside the lab.

August 2, 2023
Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Research Fellows stood in group holding their awards

Earlier this year, we kicked off the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge’s £50 million programme of research when we announced the very first scientists who will each solve different problems that could unlock a new era in treatments for people living with type 1. And now, three months later, they’ve already made tremendous progress by recruiting staff, setting up their labs, forming collaborations and even finalising publications. We caught up with them to hear about their research journeys and their hopes for the Grand Challenge.

How did you feel when you found out you’d been awarded the Grand Challenge Fellowship?

Vicky Salem

“I cried, partly tears of joy and gratitude because of what this funding means to me, and partly tears of relief because I know that I can get on with what I’m truly passionate about.”

James Cantley

“I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the outcome! In science we invest so much of ourselves in our projects, so it’s fantastic when we receive the backing of funding committees. What’s even more exciting is this Fellowship has real potential to help people with type 1 diabetes regain control of their blood sugar levels.”

Sarah Richardson

“I felt privileged, grateful and really very excited! The questions I want to focus on are now possible thanks to huge advances in the technologies.”

“We can now image whole pancreas sections which means that instead of relying only on individual images of specific regions of the pancreas, we can now explore the pancreas like we would locations on Google maps.”

How did you involve people with diabetes when shaping your Grand Challenge research ideas?

Vicky Salem

“For this application, I worked with Alex Silverstein who has type 1 himself, but who has also been the most phenomenal patient advocate over the years through his work with Health Data Research UK.”

James Cantley

“I’ve been a member of a Diabetes UK Diabetes Research Steering Group for 6 years and have also been involved in many public engagement events. Beta cell regeneration regularly features in these discussions.”

“In many ways, I think beta cell regeneration could be the ultimate treatment for type 1 diabetes. We do have a way to go before we see it move from the bench to bedside, but we are on the cusp of a new era of type 1 diabetes treatment, and I can’t wait to see where this research takes us.”

“I’m extremely grateful to those with diabetes who give up their time to help advise and review our research; this input is invaluable to advancing science.”

Sarah Richardson

“Through my work and being a member of a Diabetes UK Diabetes Research Steering Group, I’ve met and become friends with many people with type 1 diabetes, who remain a huge source of inspiration for me.”

“I see the burden; I see the worry. My goal is to make this burden lighter and one day to hopefully remove it entirely.”

“Conversations with people with lived experience of type 1 are always enlightening, humbling and fuel my determination and passion to make a difference.”

How has your Senior Research Fellowship been progressing so far?

Vicky Salem

“We’ve only just started work on the project, but so far, we’ve recruited the most fantastic group of PhD students and postdocs who come from a range of different scientific backgrounds – biologists, biochemists, material scientists and chemists. Together we’ve already managed to grow blood vessels from cells that have been taken from a patient with type 1 diabetes, giving us a single blood sample.”

“We can extract some cells from that blood sample and grow them in the lab and then use those to build brand new blood vessel networks outside the body. This is the start of the skeleton or the backbone we need to introduce the islets to, to then re-transplant them back into that patient.”

“It’s hugely exciting. We can actually see blood flowing through the blood vessels we’re growing in the lab. This kind of an advance applies not only to people with diabetes, but to all sorts of other regenerative medicine approaches.”

James Cantley

“The fellowship has been really helpful in protecting my time and has given me the ability to focus on research fully.”

“The kudos and publicity surrounding the announcement of the Grand Challenge funding has helped me succeed in recruiting three great people to my team, including a research technician, postdoc and PhD student. Advertising the roles as part of the Grand Challenges attracted high quality international candidates with essential skillsets.”

“I’m very excited to begin the next steps.”

Sarah Richardson

“It’s been very exciting to get started! We’ve recruited some amazing people to our team, the new postdoc and research technician have both really hit the ground running.”

“Together we’ve made a lot of progress, preparing for large-scale imaging analysis and making sure everything is in place for future work. This included upgrading our setup so that up to 10 people can use the software at the same time, both in the lab or remotely. Previously only two people could use it at once and they had to be physically in the lab. This really is a huge step forward!”

“We’ve also collated pancreas images from biobanks around the world, including some very rare samples, allowing us to systematically analyse pancreatic islets in people diagnosed at different ages and stages of type 1 diabetes.”

“We’re also working on getting a few papers submitted to academic journals. The work is fast paced but I’m so grateful to be in this position.”

What is the best thing about your work?

Vicky Salem

“I have the best job in the world. That’s because about 40% of my time is spent with patients, helping them to manage their condition, which is just so rewarding.”

“And of course, talking to patients is incredibly important. There is no point sitting in an ivory tower and coming up with solutions to problems that don’t exist or aren’t important to patients.”

James Cantley

“I’m driven by the excitement of discovering new insights into how the body works, especially the pancreatic beta cell, which has occupied most of my waking hours for the past 20 years.”

“I enjoy the camaraderie and collaborative nature of research, working together towards a common goal, and training the scientists and research leaders of the future. And this Senior Research Fellowship combines all of these!”

Sarah Richardson

“There are less than 700 pancreases available to the research community from people with type 1 diabetes, and even fewer from individuals very close to type 1 diabetes diagnosis where the disease process is most active. Each one looks very different depending on the age someone was diagnosed.”

“One of the best things about my job is spending my day looking at these incredibly beautiful images and working with talented and dedicated researchers to tease out what they can tell us about the root causes of type 1 diabetes.”

Can you tell us about a defining moment in your work as a scientist?

Vicky Salem

“In 2016, I was awarded almost £900,000 of funding from Diabetes UK, to investigate how gut hormones could treat type 2 diabetes and obesity in the future. This was totally life-changing for me because it gave me the opportunity to finish my junior doctor training and become a consultant and at the same time open my own lab and become an independent clinician scientist.”

“At the beginning of this project, I proposed the idea of developing a new way to take images of cells in the pancreas. I remember walking into the room with this huge spinning microscope that cost about £1 million, and thinking, oh my God, where is the on switch?!”

“But even to this day, I remember the first time I saw an image on that microscope of pancreas cells inside a living animal releasing insulin at single cell beta cell resolution, and I thought, yes, I can do this, and I will do this.”

James Cantley

“There have been so many memorable moments in my career, too many to mention! If forced to pick, I would say working on my Diabetes UK-funded PhD project when I was investigating the interaction between oxygen and glucose sensing pathways in beta cells.”

“This was a large project with multiple collaborators, and being involved with so many talented colleagues really underscored the importance of cooperation in science.”

Sarah Richardson

“I will never forget the day I first sat in the lab looking down the microscope reviewing precious donor pancreas tissues, tears streamed down my face as I recognised the loss of so many people, especially children, so far before their time. I want to ensure that we learn from these to improve the lives of those living with type 1 diabetes now and in the future.”

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Vicky Salem

“I have three children, Georgia is 10, Saul is 11 and Anna is 13, so every bit of spare time I get is focused on them.”

“I have struggled with mum guilt my entire career; I haven’t always been the type of mum that has been at the school gate every day. But I’ve tried to make up for that by talking to them all the time about my work, about the world and encouraging in them the same kind of curiosity that makes my job so fulfilling.”

James Cantley

“When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with my wife and two daughters, exploring the Scottish Highlands. I’m also a keen climber which helps me to relax and refocus.”

Sarah Richardson

“I have a husband and two daughters, so when I’m not in the lab I take every opportunity to spend time with them and listen to them play music at different open mic nights.”

“I also walk (and run when I can) with my dog, an Australian Kelpie called Mick. Some of my best ideas and solutions to challenges come out of these walks.”

First class research can’t happen without first class researchers, and we couldn’t be more excited to see how the three Senior Research Fellows will break new ground over the next five years.

Find out more about the funded projects

Breathing new life into beta cells
Dr James Cantley
Breathing new life into beta cells

Dr James Cantley’s project aims to identify, develop and test new treatments to grow new beta cells, and encourage surviving beta cells to replicate directly in the pancreases of people with type 1 diabetes.

‘Printing’ a safe haven for beta cells
Dr Vicky Salem in lab
‘Printing’ a safe haven for beta cells

Dr Victoria Salem’s project aims to develop a device that can be implanted into people with type 1 diabetes to deliver a new supply of beta cells.

Protecting the pancreas
Professor Sarah Richardson sat at her lab computer
Protecting the pancreas

Professor Sarah Richardson’s project aims to investigate how and why the immune system destroys beta cells in type 1 diabetes, and how the process may differ between people with the condition.