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Discovery Awardee Profile – Dr. Gareth Lim
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Discovery Awardee Profile – Dr. Gareth Lim

By Krista Lamb

While we often think of obesity as a condition related to diet and exercise, the reality is that it’s much more complicated than just those two things. Many people who develop obesity will do so because of a myriad of complex factors, including metabolic or genetic issues. They may, in turn, go on to develop type 2 diabetes and its related complications. This connection, and the knowledge that obesity has far fewer potential treatments than other health conditions, fuels the work of Dr. Gareth Lim.

Lim, who received a Banting Research Foundation Discovery Award in 2017, is a researcher at Université de Montréal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM). His team has been looking at how the 14-3-3zeta scaffold protein affects the development of obesity.

While the project itself is very much at a discovery level, he hopes the work will lead to improved treatments for obesity and, in turn, reduce type 2 diabetes risk and development. “What I find interesting is that a lot of focus has been placed on trying to find treatments for type 2 diabetes, but very few treatments really target obesity itself, which is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes,” says Lim. “It’s actually very tough to promote weight loss or to try and find ways to ensure that weight loss is maintained over a long period of time. What my research is trying to do is to see if we can better understand how fat cells develop and grow. This may help to find a way to stop the expansion of fat mass and the development of obesity.”

Lim had always been interested in metabolic disorders, but did not set out to study obesity or this protein in particular. After finishing his PhD with Dr. Patricia Brubaker at the University of Toronto, he started a post-doctoral position in the lab of Dr. James Johnson at the University of British Columbia. Johnson is one of the leading experts on beta cell biology and diabetes, which was the area Lim was most interested in pursuing. While in the lab, though, he made a discovery that changed his direction. “I had joined Jim’s lab to do work focused on beta cell biology and just by luck, we found that mice that lacked 14-3-3zeta in every cell were actually lean. They had a 50% reduction in overall fat compared to a normal mouse,” he explains. What, Lim wondered, did that mean for the development of obesity?

For Johnson, Lim’s decision to ask these questions has been a strong one. “Gareth is a dedicated scientist who has already carved out a unique and important research niche early in his career,” he says of his former post-doctoral fellow, noting that Lim’s work is unique in Canada. “He is focusing on how these signals work in fat cells, called adipocytes, and the cells that make insulin, called pancreatic beta cells. Both of these cell types are very important to study because they stop working properly in the case of obesity, diabetes and related diseases. I’m looking forward to all the discoveries that Gareth and his talented team will make in the future.”

After securing his position as a Principle Investigator at CRCHUM, Lim applied for the Banting Research Foundation’s Discovery Award, which would provide him with the funding to take on the experiments needed to better understand the link between this protein and obesity. “The Banting Research Foundation funding allowed me to do that study relatively early in my career, and we’ve now actually identified several new proteins that have not been associated with adipocyte development or obesity,” he says, noting that he now has a Master’s student in the lab applying these findings to his own project. “It has given us a list of targets that we can pursue for many years to come. It also allows us to go in different directions as well, diversifying the type of research my lab will do within the next five years or even more. It has been an amazing opportunity.”

The Banting Research Foundation helps to launch the careers of outstanding health and biomedical researchers across Canada. Learn more about research funded.