Richard A. Roth ’72, ’76 Ph.D.
Diabetes is one of the fastest-spreading chronic diseases. About 16 million Americans suffer from it, a number that represents a 33 percent increase over the last ten years alone. Despite the widespread availability of information about diet and exercise, and despite widespread access to insulin, researchers still have much work to do before they understand how the body keeps its glucose levels in check.
Richard Roth has been examining this problem for more than twenty years, and in 1982 he was part of a team of researchers that discovered a crucial key to understanding diabetes. Roth, a professor of molecular pharmacology at Stanford, likes to use a baseball analogy to describe the work he does in his laboratory. Inside the body, he explains, are tens of thousands of molecular baseballs flying around. Many of these molecules eventually bind with receptors, which act like catchers’ mitts. When a molecule is “caught” by the appropriate receptor, an entire cascade of events is triggered. In a healthy person, the signals exchanged between insulin molecules and their receptors result in the efficient regulation of glucose levels in the blood. But when an insulin molecule binds with a receptor in a person with diabetes, the receptor doesn’t absorb the insulin as effectively, and the cascade of events is disrupted.
Roth and his colleagues have been able to isolate insulin receptors in a pure form and study them. Their discovery that such receptors are really enzymes has paved the way to examining how the bond between receptor and insulin molecule works. The hope is that such studies will eventually help researchers understand just why these receptors function less efficiently in diabetics. Roth’s work has already prompted some drug companies to begin developing a pill that could mimic insulin, a hopeful step for children with diabetes, for example, who have difficulty coping with their insulin shots.
The implications of Roth’s research go beyond diabetes. Other scientists have found that the same mechanisms may be at work in such diseases as breast and prostate cancer, and even Alzheimer’s.
Roth says that part of the appeal of his research is “the basic science question: the intellectual challenge of figuring out how something works.” But, he adds, “I’ve known many diabetics. My mother has diabetes. My hope is also that this translates into some benefit.”