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Dr. Kathy McCoy, professor, Department of Physiology & Pharmacology, University of Calgary

Research highlights/discoveries:

• Discovering how the body’s microbiome (the community of microorganisms living in a person’s body) impacts the immune system, even before birth

Dr. Kathy McCoy at a glance:

• Received the Investigator Award, Canadian Society of Immunology (2022)

• Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2021)

• Awarded Killam Memorial Chair from the University of Calgary (2021)

• Appointed scientific director of the International Microbiome Centre, University of Calgary (2016)

• Completed her PhD in immunology, University of Otago, New Zealand (1998)

How did you get interested in research?

Being able to understand the immune system is key to figuring out how our bodies stay healthy—so immunology has always been of interest to me. I went to New Zealand on holiday and liked it so much I lived there for 12 years. During this time, I finished my undergraduate degree in biology, as well as my PhD in immunology.

When I came back to Canada, I eventually settled in Alberta (where I’m from originally) and was recruited to start and lead the International Microbiome Centre here in Calgary. Now my whole research program focuses on discovering how our immune systems are affected by our microbiome—which is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on every surface of our bodies. Every mucosal and barrier surface of our bodies is home to a community of these microbes—in fact, more than half of all the cells in our bodies are microbial! At the Centre, we are helping to build a world-class group of Canadian researchers focused on the study of microbiomes.

Where does diabetes fit into the microbiome?

Past studies have shown that the microbiome has a major influence on our immune systems early in life—even in the womb, via the mother’s microbiome. My team and I believe that imbalances in the microbiome early in life make us more susceptible later on to autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes (T1D).

In fully understanding what kinds of microbiome imbalances have an impact on the onset of T1D, we can start to develop ways to keep the microbiome healthy and prevent disease. We are currently conducting animal studies to determine how components of the microbiome shape the development of T1D.

How could your discoveries be used in practice?

They could help in determining therapeutic treatments for pregnant women to ensure that their microbiomes are contributing to their infant’s healthy immune development—or for children during their first years of life. My ultimate goal is for our research to play a role in preventing type 1 diabetes in the first place, although even using the microbiome to delay its onset would be a key accomplishment. The fact that we can modify our microbiomes gives us an incredible power in being able to have a positive impact on our health.

The last word

“Dr. McCoy’s novel research into the microbiome is a shining example of how far we’ve come in understanding the human body and autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes,” says Laura Syron, CEO and president of Diabetes Canada. “I can’t wait to see what new discoveries and potential treatments her research leads to, especially for young children.”

Did you know?

You cannot “give yourself” diabetes by eating too much sugar. This is just one of the myths about the causes of diabetes. Depending on the type of diabetes, the disease may be caused by an autoimmune condition, or your genes, family history, ethnic background, or a variety of other environmental factors.

Help us fund research like that of Dr. McCoy, which has the power to change lives. Donate today. #LetsEndDiabetes

Author: Rosalind Stefanac

Category Tags: Research;

Region: National

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