Get to Know our Scientists – Dr. David McDougal

Scientific research can be broken down into many categories, but a few core themes include basic science, clinical research, and population studies. Typically, research centers around the world focus on one of these three themes, and collaboration across areas is nearly impossible. However, at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, all it takes is a short walk to the building next door.

This is because PBRC hosts all three of these research categories on one campus, enabling important collaboration to take place. A prime example of this ability for “translational research” is through David McDougal, Ph.D.’s work in hypoglycemia.

Dr. McDougal started as a basic scientist, but he enjoys having a view of how his work can be implemented in a clinical situation. His love of translational science started during his grad school years at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“I had a vision research project where I was doing both animal models and human models in the lab,” says McDougal. “We had an idea that we could use what we were doing in the lab to diagnose people with glaucoma. We built a device but then had to lug it up to an ophthalmologist’s office, get past reception, and be put in a little closet area. We tried to translate, but because UAB is so big and the clinical facility is really just a patient center, it was really difficult.”

Now that he is at Pennington Biomedical, if he wants to conduct translational research, he can be at the clinical building in two minutes without having to lug anything over or face barriers. Pennington Biomedical is small enough that scientists can run a research project with an animal and human model and be able to be in both places at the same time.

“There is a process,” says McDougal, “You want to prove the concept in the animal models before you spend the money on the human models, but we’re getting to the point where we can do simultaneous experiments in mice and humans. That’s the power of Pennington. We’ve got a lot of potential.”

Currently, Dr. McDougal is trying to see how both mice and humans respond to hypoglycemia, a condition caused by a very low level of blood sugar, the body’s main energy source. In non-diabetic people, the body signals that it is low on blood sugar with symptoms such as shakiness, fatigue, pale skin, and more. This is also true for people with diabetes, but after multiple exposures to low blood sugar, their body can stop sending out these warning signals. This makes it difficult for them to raise their blood sugar levels in time, leading to confusion, blurred vision, seizures, and even a loss of consciousness.

“For whatever reason, mostly in insulin-treated diabetic patients, when their blood sugar drops, they lose that automatic response, and their body just doesn’t respond to it like you would expect,” says McDougal. “So we have an animal model like that, and we are working out a way to restore the response. So, simultaneously and very systematically, we’ll try to test whether we can restore it in the animal, and we’ll be ready to immediately translate from the animal model and do whatever was successful in the animals, but now in humans.”

As soon as Dr. McDougal has something going that works in the animal model, he wants to keep up just one step behind in the human model. Because the price tag on human trials is so much more expensive, he doesn’t want to get too far behind or ahead.