Alumnus Goes Abroad in Search of Breakthrough in Diabetes Research

The following is an Alumni Perspective feature written by Austin Swafford BS'09. A longer version appeared in the Fall 2013 UT Dallas Magazine.

Austin Swafford

Austin Swafford participated in the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. Here he is shown (foreground) in the NIH's immunology lab in Bethesda,  Md. with another scholar from Chicago.

What do you do when the best tools for fixing a problem are separated by an ocean? You bring them together.

For the past four years I have had the pleasure and honor to be in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program, working on a collaborative PhD project between two laboratories, one in the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Cambridge and the other at the Laboratory of Immunology at the NIH main campus in Bethesda, Md., just north of Washington, D.C.

At the NIH, I was thrilled to learn and work with many of the world’s top biomedical scientists in a community often dominated by the political whirlwind of our nation’s capital. At Cambridge, the environment was notably subdued. The university — steeped in traditions more than 800 years old — moves at its own pace. I attended formal dinners in ancient buildings with students wearing gowns and tuxedoes, enjoyed idyllic walks and boat rides down an ancient waterway, and worked in a building that hosted two of Cambridge’s many Nobel Prize winners.

Still, the primary benefit of the unique arrangement between the two institutions was to enable me to design and lead a collaborative project to study a disease close to my heart: Type 1 diabetes (T1D). This lifelong disease affects millions of people around the world, including me.

Austin Swafford

While in England, Swafford met fellow Comets during their educational travels, including Mary Gurak BS'11.

T1D typically appears in children, though it can occur well into adulthood, and is the result of a faulty immune system. The normal immune system serves a very important role as it protects us from viruses, bacteria, parasites and even cancer. However, in diabetics, a portion of the immune system becomes autoimmune — instead of attacking something dangerous, it destroys the healthy beta cells in the pancreas, which normally makes insulin. Insulin is a hormone that enables the body to absorb sugar from the blood, and without it, diabetics become very sick as the high level of sugar in their blood begins to poison them. To survive, diabetics must manage every aspect of their diet, exercise, emotions and wellness to ensure that they take the right amount of insulin in the form of shots up to 10 times a day.

As an 8-year-old, I had to learn this the hard way. My days had to be planned, routines followed, temptations unfulfilled and activities constrained. A wrong bit of math could ruin a ball game, an exam or a date, not to mention put me in the hospital with a seizure or coma. After nearly 20 years of trial and error, my T1D is still hard to manage, and over my lifetime each error I make will slowly damage my kidneys, eyes and blood vessels, ultimately taking years off my life. It is for me and others suffering from T1D that scientists around the world are working to find a cure for this disease. I’m proud to have joined in the fight.

Austin Swafford

Swafford is shown at the historic riverside Clarke Quay in Singapore. He toured the city between sessions of an immunology conference where he presented his research findings.

Efforts to develop a cure, primarily by restoring the beta cells that make insulin, have not been successful because the autoimmune part of the immune system fights back and tries to kill the new beta cells. I’ve chosen to focus on learning how to prevent T1D so that even if I can’t help those of us with the disease, at least I can work to stop others from suffering the same fate.

Scientists have long known that the risk for T1D is genetically inherited. To find new genes that would help us predict the disease, I examined the DNA of more than 20,000 diabetics and nondiabetics and discovered that mutations in the gene IKZF1 (Ikaros) are correlated with an increased risk for T1D. Ikaros plays a crucial role in the process of educating the immune system to recognize the difference between healthy and infected cells.

I presented my preliminary findings last spring at an immunology conference in Singapore and received great feedback from other scientists in the field. Unfortunately, I will not have time to confirm my results as I began a new job in California this fall. Nevertheless, I hope that the student taking over the project can complete the experiments to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method for monitoring the changes to the immune system.

UT Dallas Magazine cover, Fall 2013

UT Dallas Magazine

This article is a version of a longer story that appears in the Fall 2013 edition of the publication.

Over the four years I worked on this project, there were many moments when I looked back fondly on my time at UTD. When I first arrived at the NIH, despite the prestigious labs and the excitement of the capital, I missed the community of Comets who had become my family. As an undergrad, I spent so many nights out on the intramural fields, days in the laboratories and classrooms, and weekends writing and rehearsing skits for Destination Imagination that it was hard to leave it all behind. Fortunately, thanks to the Bill Archer Fellowship Program, I was able to meet up with scholars who came to live and work in D.C., and I even had a chance to spend the summer with Apeksha Saxena, an ’09 McDermott Scholar who came to work at the NIH. These connections helped me transition to my new community of graduate students and scientists at the NIH.

Later in England, I had the chance to be a familiar face for Comets who passed through London on their way to exotic places all over the world. I always made time to meet them, to show them the sights of the city, and to learn about the exciting things they had done at UTD and their plans for the future. These short visits always rejuvenated me and motivated me to stay connected to my alma mater while continuing my fight against T1D.

This fall, I started a new position as a postdoctoral researcher at a large pharmaceutical company, and, as part of my work, I will continue to look for therapies to prevent T1D. I am hopeful that my connections to UTD will follow me here as well. So far I have already had a blast reconnecting with the University through the recently formed McDermott Scholars Alumni Association. Through this organization, we are working to channel our passion for the school and help current Comets no matter where we are in the world. I will never forget how UTD helped support me, and I plan to carry my orange-and-green pride wherever I go.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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