Success Stories: Pilot Program furthers Thy1, diabetes research

The CTSI’s Pilot Program offers researchers the chance to compete for pilot grants up to $50,000. Sherry Spinelli, Ph.D., received one such award in 2014, and spoke with CTSI Stories about her research.


Thanks for taking a minute to chat, Sherry. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a research associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, working with Drs. Neil Blumberg in transfusion medicine and Richard Phipps in environmental medicine. My main research pursuit is the study of platelets and inflammation, and I have a keen interest in the role of platelets in pathological processes such as Type 2 Diabetes. And that research brought me to the CTSI. I wanted to develop a translational project looking at platelets and their role in type 2 diabetes and obesity, and the CTSI has provided the support and resources I needed to jumpstart this project.

What was the focus of the study?

I’m studying a protein called Thy1, which was originally identified as a surface marker of unknown function, but recently, Dr. Phipps and colleagues have shown that this protein plays an essential role in fat formation. So in layman’s terms, if Thy1 is lacking, you get fat, and if it’s present, you don’t get fat. An over simplification, but you get the idea.

Once that discovery was made, I wondered if this protein was found on platelets and further whether extracellular vesicles, small cellular fragments shed by platelets, contained Thy1 and could be taken up by other cells in the circulation to influence the recipient cell’s function. So if Thy1 is normally present on platelets and vesicles, what happens when it is not? We found that Thy1 levels are much lower in type 2 diabetic platelets and in the vesicles shed by these platelets.

So this was very exciting because we thought this might be a mechanism by which platelets could promote the chronic inflammation and obesity often associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Stepping back a little bit, what happens with Thy1 in a normal, healthy person?

In short, Thy1 expression is present in normal, healthy individuals, but we do not yet know what signals cells to lose Thy1. The funds from this CTSI pilot study have allowed us to begin to characterize the role of Thy1 in platelets and extracellular vesicles, and the consequences of the loss of Thy1 that lead to the disease state.

And from a clinical standpoint, the idea would be to alter the biology so that doesn’t happen?

Yes. Hopefully in the future, we’ll develop a therapeutic that would allow us to regulate or restore levels of Thy1, with the goal of reducing obesity. This is an important consideration as there are over 25 million diagnosed type 2 diabetics in the United States, and it’s an escalating problem.

We also feel Thy1 might be a good biomarker. We haven’t looked at this yet, but it might be the case that Thy1 expression is lost before you see other symptoms of diabetes. So perhaps it could be a flag we can use for early diagnosis.

What’s the next step?

So the pilot grant was wonderful in terms of allowing us to get that early data to go forward and get more funding. We’re also getting ready to publish a paper, which, of course, is key to getting a larger grant.

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