Eureka! Unpacking insulin signalling leads to prize nomination
24 July 2015
Dr Seán O’Donoghue from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and his colleagues Professor David James and Associate Professor Jean Yang, both from the University of Sydney, have been jointly nominated as finalists in the 2015 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes. The team uncovered unprecedented detail about the insulin/IGF1 signalling pathway, a crucial process that is implicated in diseases such as diabetes.
After a meal, the hormone insulin is released from the pancreas and travels through the bloodstream to fat and muscle, reprogramming these tissues to store energy from food. Scientists understand in broad terms how this happens, but it is remarkably difficult to untangle the complex web of insulin-dependent events that take place in cells.
The team realised that an interdisciplinary approach might transform our understanding of insulin’s action. Dr O’Donoghue is a data visualisation expert, Prof James a biologist and A/Prof Yang a computer scientist.
Together, the trio were able to achieve an exceptional level of understanding of how insulin affects proteins within fat cells. First, Prof James and his team (in work done at Garvan) showed that thousands of fat-cell proteins are modified in response to insulin – some quickly, others more slowly. Using mass spectrometry, they produced a ‘phosphoproteome’ of fat cells – a molecular snapshot of all the sites on proteins where phosphorylation (the addition of phosphate) occurs when insulin is present.
In the next step, A/Prof Yang and her colleagues worked with Prof James’s team, using powerful machine learning approaches to make sense of how the individual protein modifications related to each other.
Finally, Dr O’Donoghue and his coworkers, in close consultation with the other members of the team, transformed the multidimensional findings into an elegant, comprehensible format that was published in one of the world’s top scientific journals.
In recognition of their highly collaborative approach, the team are finalists for the 2015 UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.
Beyond shedding light on how insulin reprograms cells, the team’s work provides a blueprint for other labs working to make sense of complex proteomic datasets. These huge collections of information about proteins can provide powerful insights into health and disease.
Dr O’Donoghue is one of two Garvan scientists nominated for Eureka Prizes, the other being Dr Georgina Hollway. Presented annually by the Australian Museum, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research and innovation, leadership, science communication & journalism and school science.
Winners of this year’s prizes will be announced at an Award Dinner on Wednesday 26 August at Sydney Town Hall.
Science Media and Communications Coordinator