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Dr. Debbie Thurmond of City of Hope: “

My mantra is: Let the science tell you the truth. Don’t try to prove your hypothesis. Truly test it objectively. One of the first hypotheses I tested involved healthy metabolism. I studied animals with prediabetes and inserted a particular gene into their DNA that is expressed only in muscle tissues. The end result was that […]

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My mantra is: Let the science tell you the truth. Don’t try to prove your hypothesis. Truly test it objectively. One of the first hypotheses I tested involved healthy metabolism. I studied animals with prediabetes and inserted a particular gene into their DNA that is expressed only in muscle tissues. The end result was that I was able to restore normal, healthy metabolism to skeletal muscles that were otherwise diseased. This work was disruptive because I asked the question that nobody had ever asked before: Are the diseased muscles corrected because of the conventional job done by the protein made from the gene I inserted or is something more involved? And it turned out that something more was involved. In fact, we had discovered an entirely new role for this protein — it participates in a process nobody had ever dreamed of because it requires that the protein be in a completely different part of the cell. Cells are like houses. They have rooms. And this protein was not in the master bedroom, as expected; instead, it was in the back closet. Nobody had ever thought to look there for the protein. So, we did. This research will be published soon and will be disruptive because it could potentially lead to new treatments for people with diabetes.


Asa part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie C. Thurmond, Ph.D., director of the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Institute at City of Hope, a Southern California–based research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

Debbie Thurmond is a renowned research scientist, professor and the founding chair of the newly created Department of Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology. Dr. Thurmond and her team will lead efforts to identify cellular and molecular mechanisms in diabetes development and therapies that can stop or reverse those processes. She received her Ph.D. and postdoctoral training at the University of Iowa and earned her M.S. and B.S. from the University of California Davis.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As an undergraduate at UC Davis, I intended to get a degree in veterinary medicine. As a pre-veterinary medicine major, I was exposed to research and did research internships nearly every quarter — in the laboratory and the field. As I was completing my preliminary exams and documentation to apply to veterinary school, I realized I was completely hooked on research. I loved that every day was different and that I could design and test hypotheses and learn from science. I became interested in diabetes research because I did some research internships related to metabolism and took an endocrinology course that I remember vividly. I found the complicated nature of the different hormones in our bodies — both male and female at different stages of our lives and the fluctuation of hormone levels throughout the day in processing nutrients — to be beautifully complex. Diabetes is a disrupted form of that orchestra of hormonal events that occurs throughout the body. Our organs communicate with one another to make sure the nutrients needed by specific cell types are exquisitely provided in a very orchestrated manner. I became hooked and knew I wanted to be a part of the field of diabetes research.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My mantra is: Let the science tell you the truth. Don’t try to prove your hypothesis. Truly test it objectively. One of the first hypotheses I tested involved healthy metabolism. I studied animals with prediabetes and inserted a particular gene into their DNA that is expressed only in muscle tissues. The end result was that I was able to restore normal, healthy metabolism to skeletal muscles that were otherwise diseased. This work was disruptive because I asked the question that nobody had ever asked before: Are the diseased muscles corrected because of the conventional job done by the protein made from the gene I inserted or is something more involved? And it turned out that something more was involved. In fact, we had discovered an entirely new role for this protein — it participates in a process nobody had ever dreamed of because it requires that the protein be in a completely different part of the cell. Cells are like houses. They have rooms. And this protein was not in the master bedroom, as expected; instead, it was in the back closet. Nobody had ever thought to look there for the protein. So, we did. This research will be published soon and will be disruptive because it could potentially lead to new treatments for people with diabetes.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

When I decided to go to graduate school for my master’s degree my finances were very tight, and like all master’s students, I didn’t receive a stipend. Dr. Judy Stern, one of my master’s thesis advisors, hired me initially as a technician in her lab and then let me perform my initial master’s studies there, effectively financing my first year of studies. She also gave me excellent and welcome advice, not only as a mentor in my field of science but as a woman scientist. I got married while I was getting my master’s degree, so we talked about such essential considerations as whether to change my last name. At that time, if you were a woman in science, your productivity in terms of papers and grants was more or less erased from your resume if you changed your name.

Another of my key mentors was Alan Goodridge. While I was getting my Ph.D., he gave me the room to think for myself. He also allowed me to make mistakes, in a structured, conducive way, because that’s how we learn, so I could grow as a scientist.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective, but is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has withstood the test of time? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive and when disrupting an industry is not so positive? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruptive is positive when it reveals unforeseen information in scientific research. When you’re generating scientific information that you’re going to use as the rationale and basis for designing therapeutics, the more information you have, the better. The diabetes research I conducted that is being published is a positive disrupter because it provides a deep, new level of understanding about why a certain protein is such a great target. That research project is a wonderful example of a disrupter because it’s providing new vital information that could potentially benefit people with diabetes in the future.

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Eyes wide open. By that, I mean let the science tell you the truth. When I first opened the doors to my lab, I was spending a lot of time on the confocal microscope, a super imaging device that allows you to see small events going on within a single cell. With that microscope, I saw insulin-producing cells. Every cell has a cytoskeleton — the cell’s inner skeleton. Imagine needing to move all of your bones around so you can release insulin. The cell has the innate capability of shifting its skeleton around so it can corral individual vesicles filled with insulin from a more internal part of the cell to the surface of the cell. The cell does this in a very intricate manner. Because I was a pre-veterinary scientist, I had worked with large animals, and I knew that when you want to move cattle from one location to another you have to be well orchestrated. So that’s how I started thinking about insulin within a cell. How does it move within the cell? I wrote the first article visualizing this because I was watching this happen in real-time in a human cell. I watched, observed and reported on this event and then published an article in a medical journal about how the cell does this. That article continues to be one of the most highly-cited of my career.

We are sure you’re not done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I am extremely fortunate to recently have been named director of City of Hope’s Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute. City of Hope has a long legacy in producing impactful diabetes research, including creating the technology that led to the development of human insulin, which millions of people with diabetes use today. This discovery was made by Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., and colleagues and, until recently, he was the institute’s director. So, I have a big role to fill but I’m well-prepared and passionate about continuing City of Hope’s legacy in diabetes research. Thanks to Dr. Riggs’ leadership, we have a group of experienced and diverse diabetes scientists who are conducting leading-edge research to find more cures for type 1 and type 2 diabetes. We recently launched the Department of Diabetes and Cancer Metabolism to focus on the intersection between diabetes and cancer. As a leading center for cancer and diabetes research and treatment, City of Hope is in a perfect position to delve into how metabolism influences cancer treatment and, more importantly, how cancer treatment can impact metabolic disease. City of Hope is also leading the way in diabetes treatments such as our islet transplant program, which uses islets from a donor to help patients with type 1 diabetes start producing insulin on their own and control their blood sugar. We are also conducting a clinical trial testing an innovative vaccine for type 1 diabetes.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by “women disruptors” that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

For women in science, the challenges are many, especially if you’re trying to both do research and raise a family. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had support from mentors along the way. For instance, when I was a mom with a one-year-old child and on tenure track, a lot of expectations were placed on me. I was one of just two women in a department of 26 men. They didn’t understand that I couldn’t miss daycare pickup, but my department chair was wonderful. When I pointed out to him that meetings conflicted with daycare, he moved the meeting time for the entire department. At my former institution, only four women were full professors across the entirety of the basic science departments, so we created a group called The Power Lunchers. We collaborated as researchers, read each other’s grants, and babysat each other’s kids. We traded names of people who could help us out with the basics of the household so we could write grants and manuscripts at night. City of Hope is also an environment where there are many mentors, and I’m happy to be doing my part in that regard.

How can our readers follow you online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn and follow @cityofhope for the latest diabetes and cancer research updates.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/debbie-thurmond-07a670140/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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