From science on the screen, to science in the labs – this week’s Tuesday Feature looks at Alexander Ryan. He’s a new post doctoral researcher in the Faculty, so read about his research into his congenital hyperinsulinism.

Please explain your research for the general public in ten sentences or less.

At the moment I’m looking at congenital hyperinsulism which is when the pancreas secretes too much insulin. It affects roughly 1:50000 new-borns and its potentially really awful because the high levels of insulin leads to low levels of glucose which can have major problems with development, especially in the brain. My research is looking at trying to stop the insulin secretion and to prevent the hypoglycaemia (the low levels of glucose) and therefore help the children.

How can this benefit the person reading this blog?

Obviously with it affecting 1:50000 children, it’s not particularly common but it is devastating to those families which are affected. Also, understanding more about how blood glucose levels are controlled may lead to new treatments for diabetes which is a much more common condition affecting blood glucose levels. There are some medications that can be used for treating congenital hyperinsulinism but they don’t always work, and have quite a few side effects.  Quite often the children need a pancreatectomy (removal of the pancreas) to stop hypoglycaemia, and this is a very drastic measure.  Hopefully my research should allow a new rage of medications to be developed which would help enormously.

How did you first become interested in this?

I did my PhD in Manchester where I looked at diabetes and I focused on skeletal muscle and fat. Then I moved to San Diego to do my postdoc and I looked at the effects the muscle and the fat have on the pancreas. I became interested in how the beta cells function as a whole and this is a natural progression from that. I look at the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too much insulin and so the whole combination of being able to fully understand the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too little or too much insulin is really interesting to me.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Growing up, not so much. The main thing that wanted me to get into research science was my undergraduate degree. During this I did a project with Alan Dickson and everything he taught me was really really interesting. I got reading papers and I got excited by the idea that no one had done my work and that I was finding out new things. One of the people who I read was Randall Kaufman and I actually got the chance to meet him when I was in San Diego at a conference. It’s an embarrassing story but I completely ‘fanboy’d’ out. I basically told him I loved his lectures, his papers and so he’s closest thing to an actual hero. Other than that it’s people who I work with on a day to day basis. They do my sort of work but better than me!

How has studying and working here in Manchester helped you?

The University is fantastic. The reason I chose my undergraduate degree is that The University is one of the best in Europe, if not the World. When I was actually looking at the research the Faculty does, it seemed so fantastic and that’s what prompted me to do my PhD there. When I was coming back to England, I knew I would be coming back to the north so when I was trying to find universities to apply for, Manchester just stuck out as the best one. This was especially true for the research. The lab I’m working in now is one of the few labs in the country, if not the world, that is actually looking at congenital hyperinsulism in this manner and so it’s really unique to Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

I play bass and guitar quite a lot. I do a lot of musical stuff and I also play football. I took up surfing in San Diego, but that’s kind of useless here. Other than that, it’s just boring things like cooking, reading and travelling.

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