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Dr. Pere Santamaria, physician, researcher, director of the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Centre, University of Calgary

Research highlights/discoveries:

• Developed a therapeutic approach that could potentially reverse newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

Dr. Pere Santamaria at a glance:

• Becomes director of the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Centre, University of Calgary (2004)

• Awarded the Canadian Diabetes Association’s Young Scientist Award (2000)

• Appointed assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases, University of Calgary (1992)

• Received PhD from the University of Barcelona (1987)

What’s making headlines?

With the help of his research team, scientist and professor Dr. Pere Santamaria has developed an approach to therapy that could potentially reverse newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. “I’ve made an important discovery that I believe could have a major therapeutic effect on people with the disease,” he says. “It is the highlight of my career.”

A research dream is born

Born in the town of Manresa in Spain, at the age of 15 Dr. Santamaria developed signs of a relatively rare autoimmune disease that took about a year to diagnose. “It disrupted many aspects of my adolescence and was a major setback at a vulnerable stage of my life,” he says. “But I suspect it also planted a seed in my head to do research to help others in a situation similar to or worse than mine.”

While preparing to pursue a medical residency program, he became fascinated by immunology, an area of research that focuses on the function of the immune system in both health and disease. After finishing his medical degree and a program in immunology, he started his PhD in Barcelona and then moved to Minneapolis to continue his research, training at the University of Minnesota. In 1992, he was offered a job at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases.

Diabetes became the focus of my work because I was fascinated with its complexity. I also saw how type 1 diabetes impacted young people and their families, and how devastating it was for those affected by it.

Getting support for his work

With the help of the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA), now known as Diabetes Canada, Dr. Santamaria got his first research grant in 1993. “Before the CDA’s support, I struggled at convincing granting agencies that my ideas were worth pursuing. [The Association] really saved my career as an independent investigator,” he says.

Cracking the code

Dr. Santamaria was keen on figuring out how the white blood cells of the immune system attack and kill the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas in people with type 1 diabetes. “I spent years of my career trying to understand the cues that drive that process and what are the genetic elements that regulate it,” he says. In 2004, he was named director of the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Centre at the University of Calgary, with a goal “to create a world without diabetes through research and education.”

In 2005, he made an unexpected observation that led to the discovery of a new type of medicine based on nanotechnology (which uses particles thousands of times smaller than a typical cell). He discovered that this new type of medicine could turn diabetes-causing immune cells into diabetes-protective ones (they stop other immune cells from destroying the insulin producing cells of the pancreas). The result is a ‘resetting’ of the immune system to its normal state, which Dr. Santamaria believes would benefit those who are newly diagnosed.

“Basically, the medication makes the killing white blood cells beneficial to the individual; this process can be harnessed for building similar medicines for other autoimmune diseases,” he says. “We’ve successfully tried the process in mice with various autoimmune diseases and have optimized these nanomedicines to maximize their potency and therapeutic activity.”

Says Dr. Seema Nagpal, who is Diabetes Canada’s vice president of Science and Policy, “The potential application of this research, led by Dr. Santamaria, to immune-related diseases, like type 1 diabetes, means that people in Canada and around the world can be excited about what innovations may be around the corner.”

What else is he working on?

When not working at the university, Dr. Santamaria travels around the world to connect and partner with other scientists, and to share his research findings. He is the founder and chief scientific officer of Parvus Therapeutics Inc., a University of Calgary company that is working to get this drug manufactured for diabetes patients. “I am passionate about diabetes and truly believe that these drugs can be tailored for the treatment of other chronic inflammatory diseases,” he says, adding, “My ultimate dream is to help cure all autoimmune diseases, an opportunity that is now in sight.”

Want to hear more about Dr. Santamaria’s work? Listen to his interview on the Diabetes Canada Podcast.

The last word

“Dr. Santamaria’s work is reason for hope—the potential to reverse the immune reaction in people who develop type 1 diabetes so that they can actually produce their own insulin could be extraordinary for those newly diagnosed with the disease. We are so proud to have supported him over the past 10 years.”— Dr. Seema Nagpal, vice president, Science & Policy, Diabetes Canada

Did you know?

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Today, more Canadians have diabetes than ever before. Diabetes or prediabetes affects one in three Canadians. One in two young adults will develop diabetes in their remaining lifetime. We cannot wait another 100 years to fund vital research that can help End Diabetes. #LetsEndDiabetes Visit 100 Years of Insulin to learn more, including how you can support those living with or at risk for the disease.

This article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Winter 2016.

Author: Rosalind Stefanac

Category Tags: Research;

Region: National

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