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Patience paying off for long-term diabetes project

October 18, 2011 By Jill Sakai

Few scientists expect frequent “eureka!” moments, but some projects require even more patience and persistence than others.

Just ask biochemistry professor Alan Attie and his lab group. A full decade spent pursuing the genetic underpinning of diabetes susceptibility is finally paying off. Their results, published last week, honed in on a single genetic change in a gene that acts as a brake on insulin secretion and opened up a new avenue of research to understand diabetes.

Inside UW–Madison talked to Attie about the challenges associated with a long-term project.

Inside UW–Madison: Ten years is a long time to work on a single project. What kept you going?

Alan Attie: There are reality checks along the way that encouraged us that it would pay off. This was a difficult project, but we kept being encouraged by one milestone after another.

iUW: When you started, could you guess how long it might take?

AA: If I could, I probably wouldn’t have done it (laughs). When I first started working with mouse genetics, I didn’t appreciate how difficult some of these things were going to be. I don’t think anybody did. There was a feeling 15 years ago that genetics of disease was going to be fairly straightforward — that there would be a gene for each disease and the effects would be strong and relatively easy to find. And I think we’ve all been disappointed by how much harder it is.

iUW: This project took longer than most students’ and fellows’ tenures in a lab. How did you deal with personnel turnover?

AA: I didn’t put any graduate students or postdocs on this project until it was really within striking distance. Much of it was really done by technicians so that no one’s job was on the line. I have four technicians and they’ve been with me between ten and 18 years. They’re just outstanding people.