James Johnson


Who are you and what do you do?

I’m a Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, in both the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences and the Department of Surgery, where we study how the body works at multiple levels, from the function of single cells to the integrated physiology of whole person or animal. I am a member of the Diabetes Research Group in the Life Sciences Institute, where my laboratory tries to answer fundamental questions about the causes and consequences of type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and aging, with the hope that this information can inform strategies to prevent and treat human diseases.

When did you begin working at UBC?

I started working at UBC as an Assistant Professor in 2004. I have been here ever since, with the exception of two sabbaticals in Oxford, UK.

What motivates you personally to undertake your research?

I’m motivated by a love for discovery and a desire to lay knowledge groundwork that will benefit human (and animal) health. The job of professor is also great because I have the privilege to mentor amazing young scientists who are also passionate about biology.

When did you know you were going to focus on this area? What was your "aha!" moment?

I started focusing on diabetes research during my post-doctoral fellowship before I arrived at UBC. I found the cells that make insulin to be fascinating and I liked that my basic research was contributing to a better understanding of diabetes. I initially started working on human insulin-producing cells from deceased organ donors, but added mouse studies because it is the only way to determine the function of genes in specific cell types in a living mammal. Our studies are very diverse and we often collaborate with colleagues who study insulin producing cells in worms, flies, fish, or other simple organisms. However, the mouse has a metabolic system that is more similar to that of humans so we have chosen is as our major model system.

What is the ultimate goal of your research program?

The ultimate goal of our research program is to determine the underlying mechanisms that cause a variety of diseases related to nutrient metabolism. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer affect billions of people around the world, cause enormous human suffering, and threaten the solvency of health care systems. We hope that our research will identify common causes and mechanisms that can be targeted for prevention and/or treatment. We are already seeing impact of our research on clinical care for type 2 diabetes.

How does your work with animals advance the research you are doing?

Our mouse studies, along with complementary human tissue studies, mathematical modelling and work on lower organisms, are absolutely critical as we test hypotheses to determine cause from effect in various diseases. Without mice, we would not be able to get answers to key questions relevant to human health.

Why is the use of animals necessary in your research?

Virtually all human clinical studies in the areas of physiology I work in are correlative in nature - that is to say that one cannot determine cause from effect. Our mouse experiments, where we can delete a specific gene in a specific cell type at a specific time, address cause and effect in physiology in ways that are simply impossible (and totally unethical) in humans.

Outside of your research, if I want to engage you in conversation, what should I ask you about?

I’m actually a pretty regular guy. You can ask me about what its like to be average at hockey. You can ask me about my family. You can ask me about art, fashion, or music.  

Research involving animals can be an emotive topic. What do you say to people who are unsure how to feel about it?

I would simply say to people that most biologists like me love animals. We also love people and do our work because we are hoping the research findings will alleviate human suffering. For example, several family members of mine are alive today because of treatments that were first tested in animals. I would also tell them the story of our two formerly diabetic cats, how I was able to reverse their diabetes with a special diet and how similar approaches are being used in people with diabetes (and in veterinary care). People should know that we think very carefully about the trade-offs and justification for all of our research. 

First Nations land acknowledegement

UBC VPRI acknowledges that the UBC Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm.

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