Family connection inspires dedicated focus on diabetes

Associate Professor Kathryn Aston-Mourney

Associate Professor Kathryn Aston-Mourney, Associate Professor in Human Biology

What area of research do you specialise in? 

Diabetes – specifically the islet beta-cell. 

How long have you been in this field? 

I’ve been in this field for 20 years. 

What makes you passionate about this area? 

Diabetes is complex and fascinating. There is always something new to learn and there is still so much for us to work out. It is an incredibly common disease, so any new treatments and innovations can help a huge number of people. Diabetes is also one of the biggest diseases; it increases the risks of everything from cardiovascular disease, depression and impaired wound healing to cancer. So, outcomes from diabetes research not only have the potential to help in the area of diabetes but also can have a massive impact on a wide range of diseases and conditions. This is why I think that targeting diabetes is probably one of the best ways to influence the overall health and wellbeing of our population.  

What is your current focus? 

I’m currently working on repurposing existing drugs to prevent or slow the development of diabetes. I’m also collaborating with other researchers from different disciplines to generate new mechanisms for drug delivery and enhance the outcomes of current treatments such as islet transplants. 

What does an average work week look like? 

My average week (unfortunately) doesn’t have a lot of time dedicated to research. Most of my time is spent in my role as Faculty of Health HDR Director where I oversee and develop the HDR programs and candidates in the faculty. I also spend some time teaching MD students (as topic coordinator for the Human Biology Block) or students in other degrees. 

My research time has a large focus on the supervision and mentoring of my HDR students as well as developing research projects and collaborations and writing grants and papers. My favourite times are when an animal project is running, and I get to spend some time in the lab and give my surgery skills a workout. 

What has driven you to research in this area? 

I have been interested in the diabetes field since childhood when my grandmother was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Apparently, I announced to her when I was 13 years old: “I am going to find a cure for you, Gran.” Well, that hasn’t happened, but hopefully the field is on its way to finding one. 

I was fortunate enough to undertake my honours and PhD at the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne and Austin hospitals under the supervision of an extremely enthusiastic and supportive supervisor, Sof Andrikopoulos. This cemented my plans to be a diabetes researcher and showed me the importance of training and mentoring the next generations of researchers. 

My focus on the beta-cell stems from the central role of beta-cell failure in diabetes. It is the core common defect of all diabetes. 

Tell us about some of your career highlights. 

My top highlights from the past have been the awards. One standout was being awarded the Pincus Taft Young Investigator Award from the Australian Diabetes Society. This is the key award given by this society at the Australasian Diabetes Congress each year. I’m also very excited to now be on the other end – getting to judge this award and choose from a selection of the most promising young investigators in the field. 

I’ve also been fortunate to be awarded several other young investigator awards, two prestigious postdoctoral fellowship awards and, more recently, leadership awards. 

These days my favourite highlights are the completions, awards and careers of my honours and PhD graduands. I think seeing them succeed and excel in their chosen fields is the true measure of my success. 

What was your career highlight in 2022? 

My highlight in 2022 was a successful promotion to Associate Professor!  

Where next? 

The focus for 2023 is growth, starting new HDR students and pushing forward collaborations with my outstanding colleagues. The two main project foci are: developing an injectable islet transplant hydrogel for the treatment of diabetes – with Richard Williams and Karen Dwyer; and determining the effects of maternal metformin treatment during pregnancy and lactation on the offspring’s metabolic health – with Leni Rivera and Bryony McNeil. 

I also plan to continue with research into medical teaching to determine how we can best train our future doctors to be ready and person-centred practitioners.

This article was published in our Annual Report. Looking for more? Check it out here.