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A Q&A with Dr. Megan Penno, an ENDIA Early-Mid Career Science Accelerator Award Recipient

Dr. Megan Penno
Dr. Megan Penno

Helmsley-and JDRF-supported InvestigatorAdelaide Medical School

In July 2021, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and JDRF Australia announced the recipients of the Environmental Determinants of Islet Autoimmunity (ENDIA) Early-Mid Career Science Accelerator Awards. Dr. Megan Penno was one of three exceptional researchers to receive funding from Helmsley and JDRF Australia to support her new project.

Along with her fellow award recipients, she will use samples from the ENDIA study, a leading type 1 diabetes (T1D) study that has collected samples from early pregnancy to childhood, to investigate environmental factors that influence disease pathogenesis and possibly ways to prevent onset.

This is the first of three interviews we conducted with the award recipients to find out more about their studies, the impact each hopes to have on the field of T1D, and their experience collaborating with Helmsley and JDRF Australia.

Tell us about your research and what you’re focusing on.

Dr. Megan Penno: In our research, we will be looking at the abundance of hundreds of different proteins in the blood of children who are already on the pathway to T1D and comparing them with children who show no signs of the condition. Importantly, we’ll be comparing protein abundance not only in the children’s samples, which have been collected since birth as part of the ENDIA study, but in the blood of their mothers during pregnancy.

What outcome are you hoping for from your research and how may it help prevent T1D?

Dr. Megan Penno: Identifying proteins and lipids that are different during pregnancy and early life among children who progress to T1D could achieve two important things. Firstly, we could use these proteins and/or lipids as biomarkers for classifying children at increased risk of T1D potentially before destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas has commenced. This could help identify individuals that would benefit from treatments designed to slow or prevent the development of T1D.

What is special about the ENDIA study? Why does it offer hope in the fight to prevent T1D?

Dr. Megan Penno: ENDIA will be one of the first studies to apply cutting-edge ‘omics technologies, including proteomics – the study of proteins, and lipidomics – the study of lipids, to samples that have been collected routinely across a child’s lifetime starting with before their birth. So far, more than 60 children in ENDIA have shown signs of developing T1D. Seventeen of these children have been formally diagnosed with T1D and now require insulin.

What has it been like collaborating on a project like this with JDRF Australia, Helmsley, and your fellow researchers in Australia?

Dr. Megan Penno: The relationships between the ENDIA team, JDRF Australia and Helmsley are true partnerships. JDRF Australia is highly respected in the Australian T1D community and has been instrumental in encouraging eligible families to participate in the study. Likewise, Helmsley is one of the most prolific funders of T1D across the globe and has helped connect Australian researchers with international colleagues to progress the goals of the study. Ultimately, everyone is working together towards the common goal of eliminating T1D.


Read our Q&As with the other two recipients of this award, Dr. Emma Hamilton-Williams and Dr. Ki Wook Kim, here and here.