Research Profile – Dr. Jenny Bruin

Jenny BruinCould the chemicals we’re exposed to every day in our environment determine our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even in utero when our cells first begin to form? That’s what Carleton University’s Jenny Bruin, PhD, is working to determine with her research, including her current OIRM New Ideas grant.

Bruin’s research looks at what environmental influences are driving defects in beta cell development and the development of diabetes. “I’m particularly interested in environmental exposures that happen before we’re even born,” she says. “Chemical exposures that our mothers might be exposed to that influence the formation of the cells in our pancreas that secrete insulin. Insulin is the hormone required to keep our blood sugar levels in a healthy range and if the cells that make insulin don’t develop properly in utero, then this can predispose an individual to an increased lifelong risk of having diabetes.”

Bruin’s lab is currently working to differentiate human pluripotent stem cells into endocrine cells to model the critical stages of human pancreas development in a dish. “This model system allows us to examine the impact of exposure to environmental factors, like pollutants, during critical windows of human beta cell development.” These pollutants often stay in our environment for a very long time. Some of the ones Bruin sees were banned decades ago, but are still detectable in most humans, who continue to be exposed to them through sources like the food we eat.

Bruin wasn’t planning a career in diabetes research, but a surprising discovery in the lab during her PhD, in Alison Holloway’s lab, led her into this area, which could one day redefine how type 2 diabetes risk is determined.

“We had a model of nicotine exposure in utero and, surprisingly, the rats developed diabetes during adulthood. It led me down the rabbit hole of looking at the pancreas and I’ve never gone back.” she says. “I became fascinated with diabetes and how beta cells develop, function, and mature. I think beta cells are incredibly interesting because they have a very limited capacity to regenerate. Unlike the liver, where you can remove two-thirds and it can re-grow, the pancreas doesn’t have that capability. Generally, once beta cells have been destroyed either by the immune system or by other environmental factors, they don’t recover. And without beta cells we can’t properly regulate blood sugar levels. So, it’s a really unique organ that is very susceptible to damage.”

While Bruin and others doing research in this area know there isn’t going to be one specific environmental trigger that will determine type 2 diabetes risk, she is hopeful that by understanding the potential combinations that may contribute, they can determine what substantially increases risk.

Learn more about other OIRM New Ideas grant recipients.

Article by Krista Lamb