Researcher Spotlight- Professor Peter Thorn

Diabetes Australia talks to Professor Peter Thorn about his latest research and how the Diabetes Australia Research Program plays a role in diabetes research in Australia.

How did you become involved in diabetes research?

Changes in insulin secretion are a central characteristic of type 2 diabetes and it is the loss of insulin secretion that leads to type 1 diabetes. Therefore, many groups in diabetes research are focussed on trying to understand how insulin secretion is regulated and what goes wrong in disease.

I have been working on the control of secretion from cells for a number of years and in Brisbane we have built a microscope that enables us to image secretion from multiple cells. I realised that the methods we had developed could be applied to the study of insulin secretion from pancreatic islets, which contain thousands of insulin secreting cells, and so five years ago we started a new program in diabetes research. Our work is showing that the environment of the islet controls the structure of insulin secreting cells and that this structure is important for regulating insulin secretion.

What research project are you currently undertaking that is supported by the Diabetes Australia Research Program?

Cell-based therapies for type 1 diabetes, like islet transplantation and stem cells, aim to put insulin-secreting cells back in to the body and are a great hope for curing the disease. However, to be successful the replacement islets or cells must be able to reproduce the mechanisms that normally detect glucose levels in the blood and then fine tune the amount of insulin that is secreted. Our research suggests that the fine tuning of insulin secretion is by structures within the cell that are similar to those that regulate neurotransmitter release from nerve cells. Diabetes Australia is funding our research project that is growing insulin-secreting cells and trying to make them establish these nerve-cell like structures. We hope that this will improve the control of insulin secretion and lead to better treatments.

Why is the Diabetes Australia Research Program important?

Diabetes Australia funding provides a critical role in complementing central government funding for diabetes research. For example, in my case, Diabetes Australia funding in 2010 provided us with seed money that has led to a number of scientific papers and to further funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. In this way, Diabetes Australia is able to encourage research in to the disease which, in the end, will lead to better treatments and hopefully a cure.

More information

To read more about Professor Peter Thorn and his current projects, visit his website.

How you can help

Any individual or organisation can support the Diabetes Australia Research Program by joining The Cure Club, a regular giving program that allows you to have a donation to diabetes research deducted automatically each month. To start a regular donation, or find out more, call 1800 800 977 or email

Written by:

Diabetes Australia