Could Vitamin D have a role in diabetes?

On Mondays, Jenny Gunton sees diabetes patients at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. And from Tuesday to Friday, she heads up a diabetes research laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. She’s also the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old “Action Boy”.

Jenny Gunton, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison
Jenny Gunton, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison

Gunton is one of a growing band of physician-scientists. “It’s not a financially sensible decision, but I enjoy it,” says Gunton. “It’s also a better way for me to ask questions and attempt to answer them. And in that way, I help my patients.”

And now, with the help of her L’ORÉAL Australia For Women In Science Fellowship she will be exploring the link between Vitamin D and diabetes.

“We’ve found that Vitamin D deficiency is very common in diabetics. This is a real worry because we are starting to see more cases of Vitamin D deficiency in Australia. One in four of normal healthy women in the Sydney area are now Vitamin D deficient,” says Gunton.

And that figure rockets to 62% in people with adult onset diabetes. Gunton wants to determine exactly what Vitamin D has to do with diabetes.

Gunton began working on diabetes because, “It is the most common cause of adult blindness, end-stage kidney disease, amputations and heart disease. With good treatment you can prevent these complications to some extent. You can do something useful. I like

During the course of her PhD, when she was investigating metformin, an important drug used in diabetes therapy, she began corresponding with Ron Kahn at the Joslin Diabetes Center of the Harvard Medical School.

Then she was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council post-doctoral fellowship which enabled her to go and work with Kahn for two years.

At Harvard she was able to use the latest technology to study the differences in genetic activity between the insulin-producing pancreatic beta-cells in people who had diabetes and those who did not.

What she found was that diabetics lacked the protein ARNT, one of the master switches which controls the release of insulin. But this transcription factor works in partnership with several others, one of which is the receptor for Vitamin D.

This suggests that Vitamin D deficiency may play a role in the onset of diabetes. But Vitamin D is only produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, and that sets up a potential conflict with concerns about skin cancer.

To investigate the link between Vitamin D and diabetes, Gunton and her laboratory will use the money from the L’Oréal Fellowship to import two strains of mutant mice, one of which lacks the Vitamin D receptor and the other of which cannot produce Vitamin D.

Already, Jenny Gunton’s record as a researcher is outstanding. Her most recent publication on ARNT, published in the high impact scientific journal Cell, has been among the top 10 most downloaded papers from that journal’s website for three months. It was also selected for a commentary in the journal, Nature Medicine.

Gunton reviews papers for significant scientific journals, and has several patented therapies for diabetes undergoing clinical trials at present. Despite her success, she clearly has her feet on the ground. In 10 years, she says, she pretty much wants to be doing the same things as she is doing now—just at a higher level.

“I’ll still be studying beta-cell function, but I’d like to have a drug in trial which can significantly improve the treatment of diabetes.”

Jenny Gunton’s Ockham’s Razor podcast

Biographical details

2000-2003 – PhD The University of Sydney, Australia

1995-2000 – Admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, Australia

1987-1992 – Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery The University of Queensland, Australia

Career highlights

2005- – Senior Research Officer, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, Australia

2005- – Staff Specialist, Diabetes and Endocrinology, Westmead Hospital, Sydney, Australia

2005- – Conjoint Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney and University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

2003-2005 – Post-doctoral Fellowship, Kahn Laboratory, Joslin Diabetes Center & Harvard Medical School, University of Washington, U.S.

2000-2003 – PhD student at the Kolling Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, Australia and staff specialist, Westmead Hospital, Sydney, Australia

1998-1999 – Endocrinology registrar at Royal North Shore Hospital and Clinical Associate in Medicine at The University of Sydney, Australia

1998 – Head of House Committee for the Resident Medical Officers’ Association

1997 – Medical Registrar at Royal Brisbane Hospital and Associate Clinical Lecturer in Medicine at The University of Queensland, Australia

1995-1996 – Medical Registrar at Royal North Shore Hospital, Australia

1993 – Intern at Royal Brisbane Hospital, Australia

Honours, grants and awards

2007-2011 – National Health and Medical Research Council / DART Career development award

2003-2007 – National Health and Medical Research Council CJ Martin Post-doctoral Fellowship

2004 – Royal Australasian College of Physicians Pfizer Research Fellowship

2003 – Royal Australasian College of Physicians Servier Fellowship

2003 – Senior Young Investigator Award from the Endocrine Society of Australia

2000-2003 – NHMRC Postgraduate Medical Scholarship

1999 – Young Investigator of the Year Award from the Australasian Diabetes In Pregnancy Society