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Interview: Finding answers in blood
27 January 2010
Dana Spence is an associate professor at Michigan State University, East Lansing, US specialising in quantitative biological chemistry. His current research looks into the role of red blood cells in diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
The real reason is because not many people do, and I like a challenge! I thought that if this university is taking in 10 000 new students this year and only 10 were going to do chemistry - I want to be one of those 10. I like being off the beaten track.
What motivated you to specialise in biological chemistry?
I always liked medicine and I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was at high school. But at 17 years old, the thought of going to school for another 10-12 years was just unacceptable! I always liked the medical and biological aspects of science but I wasn't sure I had what it takes to be a medical physician. Fortunately I have been able to stay with these interests in my chemistry career.
You are currently researching the role red blood cells play in different diseases. Which diseases do they affect?
We are currently looking at diabetes, sickle cell disease, platelet biology multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis. All these patient groups have red blood cells that do not function properly, so we are looking at them from the red blood cell side.
What benefits to you hope to provide for these diseases?
In some cases we hope to offer them some help. There is currently only one proven therapy for sickle cell disease (a drug called Hydroxyurea). But the exact mechanism as to how it works is not known. We think that we may have possibly found out how this mechanism works, which could help design new improved drugs.
The work we have done with C-peptide and insulin could change the way in which insulin is administered to diabetics and may eliminate the complications that diabetes patients suffer.
Also, now that cystic fibrosis sufferers live longer, many develop diabetes, which I believe is due to the red bloods cells not disposing of the amount of glucose that they should. It is difficult to convince people of this, as most people don't believe red blood cells play a role in glucose levels in the blood stream. But we are going to keep at it - as I think it is really exciting. Our main hope is to just try to help people!
What advice would you give to a young scientist about to pursue a career in chemistry?
There are many biological questions that have been out there for quite some time and progress is starting to be made, but in our group a lot of the questions we are beginning to answer are based on our chemical knowledge - which we learn through our general chemistry courses. When you have that root in the chemical sciences and you understand how things work at the molecular level, it helps explain things at many other different levels. We are getting a better understanding of pharmacological sciences and physiological sciences because of our background in chemistry. You can take that chemistry background and truly do a lot of neat things with it - it's all chemistry! Chemistry provides a great foundation for all the sciences.
Do you prefer to teach or do research?
I started out my career at Saint Louis University, US, which did not have a doctoral program in the chemistry department so when I was there my teaching load was a lot heavier - sometimes doing two or three courses in a semester. But then I started working with a professor from the pharmacology and physiology department, Randy Spreg, on the work he was doing on red blood cells and then I then started devoting a lot more of my time to the research aspect. But I still enjoy doing both and I especially like it when I learn something as well as the students!
Which scientist do you most admire and why?
Linus Pauling - considered one of the greatest chemist in the world and he did a lot of biological work too. I like people that have hypothesis that are so far of-the-wall that people think their ideas are impossible or crazy. Another is Otto Heinrich Warburg, who won a Nobel Prize, and towards the end of his career he tried to pitch to people that a lot of cancers were caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. They thought he was crazy at the time, but in the last few years there has been work to show that he wasn't totally far of base. I like stories about people who proposed ideas fifty or sixty years ago and now it is being found that their ideas were right.
What eureka moment in science do you wish had been yours?
The story of Banting and Best when they administered the first insulin to children in Toronto in the 1920's. They had purified the insulin as they had the idea that insulin controlled blood sugar levels. They gave it to all these children in sugar commas in the hospital and by the time they got to the end of the ward, some had started to come out of their commas. It would have been utterly amazing to see it work right in front of you and know that you were right.
Do you have any exciting or unusual hobbies?
I am a big fan of sports. I like American Football but I love hockey - my team is the Detroit Red Wings. Sports are always on in my house and I stay up late after the kids have gone to bed to watch all the hockey games on TV.
Can you tell us a little known fact about yourself?
I am a fairly open book, however, most people don't know that I met my wife on the playground at recess when I was 9 years old (she was 8). Of course, we didn't marry until a few years later!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I always wanted to be a medical physician - so I could help people. But failing that I could also be a sports announcer!
Dana Spence's homepage
Michigan State University, US
External links will open in a new browser window
The dual nature of extracellular ATP as a concentration-dependent platelet P2X1 agonist and antagonist
Welvitya Karunarathne, Chia-Jui Ku and Dana M. Spence, Integr. Biol., 2009, 1, 655
Zinc-activated C-peptide resistance to the type 2 diabetic erythrocyte is associated with hyperglycemia-induced phosphatidylserine externalization and reversed by metformin
Jennifer A. Meyer, Wasanthi Subasinghe, Anders A. F. Sima, Zachary Keltner, Gavin E. Reid, David Daleke and Dana M. Spence, Mol. BioSyst., 2009, 5, 1157
A perspective on the role of metals in diabetes: past findings and possible future directions
Jennifer A. Meyer and Dana M. Spence, Metallomics, 2009, 1, 32
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