Dennis Venema is TWU's Lord of the Flies

It's like magic. You return home from the grocer with a wonderful assortment of summer fruit and within minutes pesky fruit flies appear and seemingly multiply before your eyes. While they may be downright annoying they are however, playing a critical role in laboratory research at Trinity Western University, giving scientists insight into two of our largest health care concerns.

Dr. Venema, Assistant Professor of Biology at Trinity Western University, uses fruit flies in his lab to investigate insulin signaling and cell surface proteins that physically connect cells together. By studying how cells work and how they multiply, the scientist and his researchers are uncovering new information that will help lead to therapies in the future for diabetes and cancer.

Venema and his assistants study the offspring of fruit flies with genetic deficiencies to discover how a mutant gene interrupts normal insulin signaling pathways in the young fruit flies.

Says Venema, “The most common form of diabetes, Type II diabetes, results from the inability of cells to respond to insulin. The exact reasons why this is so, are unclear. A better understanding of how the genes in the insulin signaling pathway work together is needed to address this question.

But why the fruit fly? Believe it or not, the common fruit fly's DNA is very similar to that found in humans. And because of the short life cycle of the fly, it's easier and faster to perform detailed genetic studies than it would be with larger creatures, such as mice or birds.

Venema has always been a biologist of sorts. As a child he was forever catching insects and other critters. He entered university with his sights on medical school, but in the third year of his BSc in Biology he began to realize his passion for research. He was first introduced to research using fruit flies while working in his supervisor's lab at UBC, and later his love for research led him to obtain a PhD. That's when Venema opened his own lab at TWU--making him Langley's “Lord of the Flies.” The cell-to-cell connection project in his lab is a continuation of his PhD work at UBC.

As well as diabetes research, Venema is also researching cancer and studying the fall-out that occurs when organisms are no longer able to regulate their cell division. Says Venema, “When organisms lose the ability to control cell division, the resulting uncontrolled growth causes cancer. Loss of cell-to-cell connections or when the cell becomes detached from its tissue, often leads to uncontrolled growth as well.”

Venema has shown in his research that the same class of genes thought to join cells together, actually do much more, and are required for coordinating the actions of individual cells to act together as a tissue.

Biology students attending Trinity Western University have the opportunity to contribute in the lab environment by performing cutting-edge medically relevant research, which prepares them for graduate school or medical studies. Recently, two of Venema's research students have gone on to further their studies at the graduate level. Nicole Naples received an NSERC grant (post-graduate scholarship) to continue studies at Simon Fraser University and David Ngan will pursue a Masters of Science in the Experimental Medicine program at UBC.

A new High Resolution Microscopy and Live Imaging Laboratory that is being installed in the Biology Department at TWU will give Venema and his team even more opportunity to conduct this important research.

Says Venema, “The hope of my research is first and foremost to better understand the genetics of how cells grow, divide and make connections with one another to form functional tissues. These processes are biologically fascinating in their own right, and highly relevant for understanding diseases like type II diabetes and cancer, among others. Over the long term, my hope is that this research, when combined with the efforts of other labs, will improve our ability to treat these diseases. “

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers undergraduate degrees in 39 major areas of study ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music to business, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 15 graduate degrees include such areas as counseling psychology, business, theology, administrative leadership and interdisciplinary studies in English, philosophy and history.

Last Updated: 2007-10-19
Author: Erin Mussolum