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Studying gene disorders to cure diabetes

The young developmental biologist Simona Chera has received grants for a total of 17 million NOK (1.8 million Euros) for her cutting-edge research in the field of diabetes.

Simona Chera
THE FORTUITOUS DIABETES SCIENTIST: Simona Chera knew early on that she wanted to be a researcher, but her way into diabetes research started by serendipity.
Photo:
Elin Espe Stensvand

Over the past 12 months, Associate Professor Simona Chera at the Department of Clinical Science at the University of Bergen (UiB) has received three prestigious grants for her research into diabetes. This underlines her position as one of the leading young diabetes researchers in Europe.

“It was extremely important for me to get these grants. The first step on the way to be independent is to get your own line of research, and as a researcher independency is essential. But to get there, you have to acquire a substantial amount of funding,” says Chera.

Multiple grant recipient

In 2015, Chera was announced as one of the new Young Associate Investigators of the Centre for Molecular Medicine Norway (NCMM), she was awarded with a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Excellence Project and she twice received the Research Council of Norway´s funding for independent Young Research Talents.

Chera is part of a group of stem cell research at the KG Jebsen Centre for Diabetes Research. The centre is a collaboration on diabetes research between UiB, Haukeland University Hospital and collaborators from the United States and the United Kingdom, led by Professor Pål R. Njølstad, who currently holds anAdvanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for his excellent research.

Research on inherited diabetes

The research group has been working on identifying mutations in genes that can cause an inherited form of diabetes. Maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY) is a diabetes form, which affects young people. In Bergen, samples from more than 150 MODY families are stored to be used in diabetes gene research.

What made you choose to work at the KG Jebsen Centre in Bergen?

“The large MODY registry of data and blood samples is quite unique. I was interested in coming to Bergen in the first place, so it was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work here. In most of Europe it is quite difficult to work on patient samples, because the legislation is very strict,” says Chera.

Coming to Norway, the young diabetes researcher was interested to see if any of the mechanisms she had discovered in mice also could be applied in humans.

“In order to get this research done, I need access to human samples, and stem cell research is more accessible in Norway than in the rest of Europe,” Chera explains.

Born into academia

Simona Chera was born in Bucharest, Romania, where she also started her studies.

“Both my parents are researchers, and I found it really inspiring. For me, becoming a researcher was an easy track to follow, though my parents are physicists, not biologists,” says Chera.

Immediately after finishing her degree at the Faculty of Biology in Bucharest, Chera moved to Geneva, Switzerland and started her PhD in regeneration, which early became her main interest. Regeneration means that an organism regrows a lost part, so that the original function is restored. In her PhD project, Chera worked on Hydra, which is a freshwater polyp with the ability to regenerate its entire body; the most classical model of regeneration.”

“After finishing my PhD I got an opportunity to work with mice, which is kind of a holy grail for people working in the regeneration field. Usually we work with quite unsophisticated origins, because they regenerate better. I moved from the Faculty of Science to the Faculty of Medicine, to work with pancreas regeneration,” Chera explains.

A disease onset in maturity

One of Chera’s main discoveries in Geneva was an age-related switch in the regenerative potential in the pancreas, which resulted in several publications.

“There is a natural correlation between this work and MODY. MODY patients are born with the gene mutation that causes the disease, but the disease symptoms are not evident until later in life, meaning it is onset in maturity,” says Chera.

She is now studying beta cells, which is a type of cell that is found in the pancreas. The cell’s primary function is to release insulin in response to spikes in blood glucose concentrations. In conditions like MODY, a progressive beta cell decay is expected.

“The problem with diabetes is that it is an extremely expensive disease to control, and it is compulsory to find a way to postpone the onset of the disease, or to diminish the impact of diabetes on health span. If we are able to regenerate beta cells, this could remove some of the restraints from the economy of the disease and improve the quality of life for diabetic patients,” Chera explains.