Molecular signalling pathways, family and floorball with the boys
Helena Jones abandoned her plans of becoming a road-worker early on. One major contributing factor was that her uncle, cancer researcher Thomas Walz, brought her to his lab. There, she was fascinated by science. "My uncle showed me how to grow cells, what liquid nitrogen was, and other fascinating things", says Helena Jones. Today she is a researcher in the Molecular Endocrinology group at the Biomedical Centre in Lund. She is in the middle of her career, has started building her own research group and, together with Professor Cecilia Holm, they supervise one PhD student.
Building a reserach group
"I aim to have my own research group, but it doesn’t have to be all that big. I think two post-docs and two PhD students will be perfect. I don’t just want to supervise. I also want to do my own research, in the lab too. My dream is to still be able to go to the lab in ten year’s time, open the fridge and know what’s in it."
For Helena Jones, Natural Science was the obvious choice at high school. "After high school I wasn’t sure what to do, until I realized it was possible to do a biomedical degree. It was like it was made for me. I didn’t have the appropriate grades for studying medicine and I don’t think it would have been right for me. I’m too soft. Biomedicine was perfect," says Helena Jones.
She graduated from her PhD at Lund University in 2007 and her thesis was on the mechanisms that regulate the secretion of insulin from the beta cells and in particular one enzyme (phosphodiesterase 3B or PDE3B) which plays an important part. "Right now I’m focusing on another protein, adiponutrin, the function of which is unknown. It’s a very exciting project," says Helena Jones.
Mapping signalling pathways
In an article that was published during her PhD, Helena Jones and co-workers showed that the PDE3B enzyme regulates the cAMP signal which is responsible for breaking down a substrate (cAMP) that ups insulin secretion from the beta cell. "My work focuses on mapping molecular signalling pathways in the beta cell and at a later stage also in other tissues, for example fat and liver," says Helena Jones. In the study, scientists used gene-manipulated mice that had twice as much PDE3B enzyme in their beta cells compared to normal mice.
Diet containing a lot of fat
"We then overloaded the mice’s metabolism by feeding them a diet containing a lot of fat, in fact 58 per cent of their energy intake was derived from fat," explains Helena Jones. Two months later, the metabolism of sugar in the mice that had too much PDE3B enzyme in the beta cells had been disrupted in a way that is similar to the pre-stages of type 2 diabetes in humans. The mice also experienced other disruptions, for example a three-fold increase in the dangerous blood fat triglyceride. "The explanation is that the high levels of the PDE3B enzyme counteracted the rise in insulin secretion that cAMP enables."
Two pieces of a large puzzle
Many cooperating and counteractive substances and signals take part in the regulation of blood sugar levels. These interactions are complex. Two of them are, as mentioned above, cAMP that strengthens and PDE3B that weakens the regulation. "They are two pieces of a large puzzle and we have to get a better understanding of why people contract type 2 diabetes if we are to develop a new way of treating or preventing the decease", establishes Helena Jones. She thinks of it in two steps. First, find out how the molecular signalling pathway runs. Second, try to alter it.
"There are substances that inhibit the PDE3B enzyme and as such could potentially benefit insulin secretion, but these substances are not specific enough, which results in many undesirable effects." A substance that exclusively inhibits cAMP activity in beta cells could enable increased insulin secretion and thus contribute to more efficient sugar metabolism in patients.
Helena is originally from Stockholm, lived in the States for a few years as a child, studied in Linköping, and spent some time as a post-doc in Massachusetts, USA. Right now, however, she has no plans of leaving Skåne. "No, I’m really happy here. Perhaps floorball practice with the boys at Sony in Lund is one of the reasons. "My husband works there and I sometimes join them at practice. Earlier I did quite a lot of physical activity, I swam, climbed, snow-boarded. These days I don’t have as much time."
One reason for the lack of spare-time is her family, including her two-year old son Elliot. "I don’t let work take priority over my family. I leave work at five. It has to be possible to combine being a good mum with doing research," says Helena Jones. Another important reason for being happy in Lund is her workplace. "It’s a very good atmosphere here, on the whole floor," she says and points around her. "This is largely thanks to Cecilia Holm and the other senior scientists here," she adds.
Free and creative work process
Creating a nice atmosphere in the workplace is something that she will also strive to do in her own research group when the time comes. "I believe in creating the best opportunities and trusting your staff so that they can work freely and creatively. This is also when the best research is carried out."