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Science Q&A: Combating insulin resistance

Kaja Plucinska’s research focuses on the brown and beige fat secretome and the discovery of novel endocrine factors regulating insulin sensitivity and energy balance. Her findings might lead to new therapeutic strategies to combat insulin resistance in Type 2 Diabetes.

Kaja Plucinska, PhD, was one of the recipients of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s postdoctoral fellowships 2019 for research abroad in the field of Endocrinology & Metabolism. Plucinska will receive DKK 3,985,865 over four years.

What does this grant mean to you and your research?

“Primarily, it tells me that the research we proposed is novel and has a true potential to uncover previously unknown and clinically relevant biology within metabolism and (brown fat) endocrinology. This grant will allow me to explore a new research environment abroad and work alongside top tier scientists in the field to develop new thinking strategies and use cutting-edge technology, e.g. click-chemistry and gene editing in vivo. I am a senior postdoc at Copenhagen University (UCPH), so this International & Homecoming (3+1 years) NNF grant will hopefully allow me to establish my own research group in Denmark, or another European country in 2024.”

Where will you conduct your postdoc?

“I will be based at the Rockefeller University, NYC (US) in the Laboratory of Molecular Metabolism led by Assoc. Prof. Paul Cohen for the initial three years of the fellowship, and will return to Denmark for my fourth year, at the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR). During this fellowship, I will be using what is called the ‘bio-orthogonal non-canonical amino-acid tagging’ (BONCAT) technique recently developed in the Cohen Lab (Rockefeller University) to label and trace newly synthesized proteins released from fat in order to establish: why is burning fat through cold exposure (e.g. 5ºC) healthy for us? Does brown fat secrete (yet unidentified) hormones, which regulate insulin sensitivity, and if so, can they become therapeutic targets against obesity or diabetes?”

What applications could your research have?

“Obesity, a major cause of Type 2 Diabetes (T2D), is linked with many health complications, as well as increased mortality. We know that fat tissue plays a fundamental role in the development of T2D, because its functions to store excess calories (white fat) or burn them during the process called ‘thermogenesis’ (brown fat) become compromised, giving rise to what is called ‘insulin resistance’, a condition of poor sugar clearance from blood. We and others suggested that brown fat may produce potent circulating hormones, which have the potential of improving insulin sensitivity, but the identity of these hormones remains unknown. We recently discovered a number of such circulating factors and propose to identify their sites of actions and delineate their potential against metabolic disorder in mice to hopefully open new therapeutic strategies to combat insulin resistance in T2D.”

What is the best thing about being a scientist and about your area of research?

“As an academic, I am primarily fascinated by how much there is to be discovered in biology in order to understand how we function and adapt to environment. Since 2010, I have been pursuing basic disease-oriented research and developed a particular interest in normal physiology and pathophysiology, such as metabolic disease. The biggest ‘kick’ for me in science is the ability to pose a hypothesis and figure out best ways to tackle it. The outcome is always exciting; it gives you a lead and it is broadening knowledge. The best thing about my current research area is that brown fat was only discovered in adult humans a decade ago (2009), and despite enormous research efforts still little is known about its endocrine function. It burns calories and defends core body temperature during cold, but is it, similarly to white fat, also an endocrine organ? Does it crosstalk with other tissues such as brain, muscle and liver to orchestrate whole body metabolic homeostasis? These areas of research are brand new in the field, and I feel lucky to be able to embark on it with this fellowship.”

Do you have any advice to students out there wanting to pursue a career in science?

“Think ahead of your next steps, know what you want to do and make a feasible plan to achieve it. This rule is true for both lab work and career choices. Find your strengths and weaknesses – work on your ‘areas for improvement’ whilst using your strengths productively. Establish your network and actively cultivate it, find friends at work. Attend conferences, communicate your discoveries, be curious about other people’s work, be a team player. No-one has ever achieved a ground-breaking discovery on their own. Take initiative and never let go of your ambition. If you love science, you will be able to live it. If you don’t, switch jobs.”