Future Research Leaders: Meet Associate Professor Melinda Coughlan

February 01, 2019

Associate Professor Melinda Coughlan is Head of the Coughlan Lab at Monash University, leading research to stop complications of diabetes and understand dietary factors connected with the disease. She’s a rising star in the type 1 diabetes (T1D) research world, and that’s why we’re proud to have her as part of the JDRF/Macquarie Group Foundation Future Research Leaders program. When she’s not busy trying to make the world better for people living with T1D – which is a full time job by the way –  Melinda is a mum to two young daughters. Understandably, every day is a juggle! Here’s more about Melinda and her wonderful research.

Melinda, please tell us about your research in T1D 

A major goal of my research is to understand which parts of the modern diet cause chronic disease processes to begin. My research focuses on the role of diet in the development of diabetes and its complications, with a focus on slowing chronic kidney disease progression. I’ll particularly be looking at advanced glycation end products, which are compounds that form when fat or protein combine with sugar. These are contained in highly processed foods.

This research takes place in the lab using dietary intervention studies in animal models to look at processes at a biochemical and molecular level, using state-of-the-art technologies including transcriptomics, metabolomics and metagenomics.

What are the next steps for this research?

Translation! This means that I am focusing on applying the knowledge gained from preclinical studies to design and perform studies which will directly help people with diabetes. My research is now readily translated as a result of active collaborations with dieticians and clinicians who play key roles by assisting me in running diet intervention studies and small clinical trials using dietary supplements. I am also undertaking discovery-based research in the human kidney donated from people with diabetes, to look for novel changes leading to kidney damage, using the latest technologies. Any discoveries could help us to develop new medicines to slow or reverse kidney disease development.

How did you end up in the T1D research field?

It was a serendipitous entry into the field of T1D! I already had extensive training in the diabetes field. My Honours research year focused on type 2 diabetes and obesity in the Department of Nutrition at Deakin University. During my PhD at the University of Melbourne, I chose a project based around gestational diabetes at the Mercy Hospital for Women. It was through this research and exposure to the clinic, that I became intensively interested in the complications of diabetes. I was intrigued at how high glucose concentrations in the blood could so readily lead to the blood vessel damage we see in some people with diabetes. I was determined then to uncover what’s responsible for this, so I contacted Professor Mark Cooper, a world expert in diabetes complications, with an expression of interest to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship in his diabetes complications division.

You’ve just finished up the workshop component of the JDRF/MGF Future Research Leaders Program. What are some useful things you learned? 

Collaboration is key! The ability to join forces with other researchers to foster collaboration is one of the most important aspects of running a successful research program. The Future Research Leaders Program really emphasised this.

Associate Professor Coughlan is also a JDRF Career Development Award recipient, a recipient of the Nutrition Society of Australia’s Mid-Career Research Award a member of the Expert Working Group of the of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee of Nutrition. Learn more about her work on the Monash website