Charles Murtaugh, Ph.D.


Although the pancreas is a relatively small organ, tucked away in a corner of the digestive tract, its diseases have a disproportionately large impact on humanity. Type I diabetes, also called juvenile onset diabetes, affects approximately one million Americans; the discovery of insulin has blunted the edge of what was for centuries a universally fatal disease, however, type I diabetes still remains a very serious and lifelong condition. Less common, but in many ways more terrifying, is pancreatic cancer, with which approximately 30,000 Americans are diagnosed each year. Nearly the same number will die, usually within a year of diagnosis. These diseases affect two distinct compartments of the pancreas: insulin-secreting endocrine cells are destroyed in type I diabetes, and pancreatic cancer is thought to arise from cells of the exocrine compartment, normally responsible for producing digestive enzymes. Early in development, however, both of these compartments arise from a common set of progenitors. My research, using mouse molecular genetics, aims to understand how progenitors are converted into mature endocrine and exocrine cells; this will yield insight into the treatment and prevention of these diseases. Mimicking the normal mechanisms by which insulin-producing beta (β) cells are made to differentiate, in the embryo, could allow their production in the clinic, for transplantation to cure type I diabetes. The malignancy of pancreatic cancer cells, on the other hand, depends on their escaping normal differentiation controls; understanding this escape mechanism will help identify targets for prevention and treatment.