2014 Pathway Accelerator Awardee Joshua P. Thaler, MD, PhD

Targeting obesity through the brain

Project title: Modulating Glial-Neuronal Interactions to Treat Obesity and Diabetes
Institution: University of Washington
Pathway project publications: 5
Promoted to tenured associate professor in 2017

Major accomplishments:

Not long before starting my Pathway award in 2014, I had published in collaboration with my mentor, Dr. Michael Schwartz, the first description of gliosis associated with obesity in humans and rodents. With the support of the Pathway award, I have started my own lab, successfully recruited outstanding postdoctoral fellows to my group, and been promoted to tenured Associate Professor. Scientifically, we demonstrated in a series of publications (Diabetes, Molecular Metabolism, Diabetologia, Nature Communications, and a manuscript in press at Cell Metabolism) that glial cells (the brain’s damage response cells) not only are activated by high-fat diet consumption but play a critical role in obesity pathogenesis. This work has established the field of glial-neuronal interactions as a burgeoning new area of interest for obesity therapeutics. This work helped me obtain a prestigious nomination for the HEIDI award in 2015 and form a collaborative research agreement with Novo Nordisk USA in 2016.

Impact statement:

The Pathway award has served as a vital accelerator for my scientific and academic research program. The funding enabled me to rapidly advance our understanding of glial cell biology and demonstrate its importance for developing obesity drugs. In addition, the public recognition has provided me opportunities to communicate my work nationally and internationally, and to form fruitful collaborations that have expanded our research capabilities. These elements together have positioned me to perform critical first experiments on glial targets that could have lasting impacts on patients with diabetes.

For my personal career, the Pathway award was the key difference maker in my early faculty years, providing me the financial support to become independent and the clout to command local resources to assist with my efforts. Together, this enabled me to recruit students and postdoctoral fellows, outfit a fully operational cutting-edge research laboratory, and develop the research program that has resulted in my promotion to a tenured Associate Professor position.