'Bathtub' Equation Aids Diabetes Research

October 22, 1997

When Diane Finegood explains how mathematical modelling techniques can provide new insights in the fight against diabetes, she inevitably starts talking about bathtubs.

"The flow of water in and out of a bathtub gives us a useful equation in diabetes research, explains Finegood, an associate professor in the school of kinesiology, who set up her diabetes research lab at SFU last year.

"'In' minus 'out' equals accumulation -- that's the equation we use to describe what's happening with beta cells, the cells which make the hormone, insulin. The number of new cells forming, minus the number dying, equals the rate of change in the number of cells. It's simple math. But most people can understand bathtubs better than beta cells."

Finegood will explain her research at the first lecture in the fall president's lecture series on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 4:30 p.m. in the Halpern Centre.

Finegood didn't start out studying diabetes because of an interest in the disease. "I was interested in applying engineering approaches to the study of biological systems," she explains. "Diabetes is a disease that lends itself well to using mathematical modelling and numerical approaches, which can add novel insights into the disease processes."

Her initial research focused on the role of insulin, which allows sugar in the bloodstream to enter into the body's tissue. She went on to study the cells that make insulin. Applying her engineering perspective, she developed a mathematical model that could describe how the cells were formed and how they died. The model predicted a phase of cell death in young, normal growing rats. Further research proved the prediction to be true.

"Just thinking about the numbers and using some basic principles allowed us to learn something of the physiology that no one ever considered, and that no one had ever seen, because when cells die, the 'debris' is quickly cleaned up," she explains.

Mathematical models provide the basis for much of Finegood's research on the turnover of cells in the development of diabetes, a disease which afflicts 1.5 million Canadians.

Finegood was given the Canadian Diabetes Association's Young Scientist award in 1995 and also holds a Medical Scientist Award from the Medical Research Council of Canada. She currently has four graduate students, two post doctorate fellows, three technicians and two co-op students at work on various aspects of her research.

One study may shed light on what triggers the immune system to attack cells that make insulin in auto-immune diabetes. Another will focus on how sugar regulates the death of cells.

Research will also look at the effectiveness of two new pharmaceutical agents, one that may improve the function of the insulin-producing beta cells and another that may help to prevent the disease by smoothing out fluc-tuations in the blood sugar level.

Finegood is optimistic about the progress of diabetes research. "I'm sometimes shocked at how much we know about some things and how little we know about certain simple things," she says. "We may not be close to finding a cure, but we're not that far off from improving prevention strategies."

Simon Fraser University

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