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In mathematical combat with the failing beta cell

The natural sciences are appealing, almost in a philosophical way.
- You don’t know. And neither does anyone else. But you will find out. The fascination is in working with the unknown, says Erik Renström, scientist at LUDC.
He is a newly appointed professor of islet pathophysiology at LUDC and these opening words sum up the delight Erik Renstöm has taken in problem solving and finding logical connections ever since he was a child.

When he decided on a PhD education, after finishing his general practice as a doctor and working a year at the intensive cardiac care unit, his plan was to come back to clinical cardiology, not to diabetes.  Nor was an interest in diabetes a decisive factor in choosing a research. No, the prerequisite was that he would work with excitable cells, electrically active cell with ion channels.

Beyond the binary

- It is about getting beyond the binary: Is a certain substance present in the cells? Yes or no. Is this substance released when I add this or that substance? Yes or no. So boring, instead I wanted to work with complex processes where one really needed to use a mathematical way of thinking. Electrically active cells are like math in reality and at heart I am a mathematician rather than a chemist, he says.

College in Curacao

Because his interest in nature was there from the start, it was natural to continue on the scientific path in seventh grade at Peter Stuyvesant College in Curacao, where Erik Renström lived for more than two years as a child.
- My father worked there as an engineer in the oil business, Erik explains and tells about the cultural melting pot that was the Netherlands Antilles. The official language is Dutch but the majority speaks Papiamentu, a pidgin language mixing Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English.
-I do remember a few expressions, but they are hardly appropriate for printing, he says.

Instrument technician in Gothenburg

After finishing compulsory school he went on to do his secondary education (gymnasieutbildning) in Gothenburg. The science program was a given choice.
After graduation, at a loss of what to do next, he worked as an instrument technician for a year at an oil refinery in Gothenburg.
- My father was of the opinion that one should have a real job before becoming a full time academic and he was right about that. In addition, my experience from working as a technician came to good use when I started in the lab.

Medical school in Gothenburg

- I had no clear idea of what I wanted to study, except that I didn’t want to do what everyone else in my family did and become an engineer or a teacher. I applied to journalism school as my first choice, and medical school as my second. I was accepted to both and finally chose medicine. During the education Erik Renström did a scientific summer project at Sahlgrenska sjukhuset, in the same research group as Arvid Carlsson, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine a few years later.

An extended pause from the clinic

- I was, however, decided on working actively in the clinic as a doctor. Still, after a few years at the cardiology department in Borås, even though I got on pretty well, a feeling of uneasiness started to grow. I saw a predestined path for the rest of my life. The career seemed so predictable. Erik Renström says he realized that he needed a break from the clinic.
- A pause, that is how I thought about it for a long time, but now, 16 years later, I’m starting to let go of that idea.

Doctoral thesis in Lund

The following thesis project was not unexpectedly about electrically active cells and in 1997 it resulted in the thesis: “Properties of Calcium-dependent Pancreatic Hormone Secretion: Evidence for Distinct Functional Pools of Secretory Granules.”
His supervisor was Patrik Rorsman and he and his group shared Erik Renström’s interest in excitable cells, to which the insulin secreting beta cell belongs. Patrik Rorsman and Erik Renström continued their collaboration after the dissertation when they were both at Lund University.

Full time scientist

In 1997 Erik Renström started working as a clinical assistant at the Endocrinology clinic in Malmö. It was taxing; the combination of work in the clinic, teaching and research led to too long work days. So when Erik Renström got an offer to do research full-time he accepted.
- Two years, I thought. Then I will go back to being a physician.

A creative environment

Leif Groop was head of the endocrinology clinic in Malmö and since 2006, when LUDC was formed, they have worked side by side in the administration of the center; Leif Groop as the coordinator and Erik Renström as the vice-coordinator. The latter is supposed to take over when the former retires.
- LUDC has been just as successful as we dared to hope. A creative and motivating environment with a large number of scientists tackling diabetes from many different angles, says Erik Renström.

What is wrong with the beta cell in diabetes

His angle is still the excitable beta-cell.
- Simply put, in my group we try to find out what is wrong with the beta-cell in diabetes, he says.
So far, the search for answers has resulted in 53 publications in scientific journals such as Science, PNAS, Neuron, Journal of Clinical Investigation and Cell Metabolism.
One of the highlights of his science career so far was the finding that over-expression of the alpha-2a -adrenergic receptor decreases insulin release from the beta cells.
- Yes, this was a project we worked on for many years that we finally brought to a successful closing, Erik Renström comments. This work is currently being evaluated for publication in a highly esteemed journal.

Construct a virus

What about the setbacks then, the not so successful projects?
- Of course, if I look through my files there will be a few. You bet on several horses and wait to see which ones advance, Erik Renström answers and tells about one that never made the finish line.
- There was a project with my first PhD student. We tried to make a virus that produced a small peptide. We worked for a year and a half but could never show that there was any production at all. The idea was probably not wrong but we tried to do something that was too difficult to measure.

When the cherry trees blossom

Research, being vice-coordinator of LUDC and teaching occupies most of the time. Erik Renström cannot tell how many hours he puts in every week.
- I don’t let go of work when I go home but say about 50 hours, he says. But he does not think of it as a hardship.
- No, I get on well and feel happy with what I do. But sometimes, when the large applications are due in the end of April and the cherry trees blossom, I wish I could spend more time on that part of my interest in nature.

Text: Tord Ajanki/Emma Ahlqvist
Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/Malmöbild

Lund University Diabetes Centre, CRC, SUS Malmö, Entrance 72, House 91:12. SE-205 02 Malmö. Telephone: +46 40 39 10 00