Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Jesse Platt
Jesse Platt is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Richard Young’s lab studying mechanisms of insulin resistance. He is also a practicing gastroenterologist and hepatologist. We sat down with Jesse to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
Insulin resistance is a common condition that can progress into diabetes and other diseases. Insulin receptors are molecules that help regulate levels of sugar in the body, and in insulin resistance they fail to function normally. What I've been studying is how the insulin receptor functions in insulin sensitive cells, and how it becomes dysfunctional in insulin resistant cells. What we showed is that in healthy cells, insulin receptors join together into these biomolecular condensates or clusters, and that these condensates are actually essential for the function of the insulin receptor. In cells that are diseased or insulin resistant, both the incorporation of the receptor into these condensates and the activity of the condensates is blunted. We also found that the common diabetes drug, metformin, rescues the formation and activity of these condensates, and that may be how it mitigates insulin resistance.
Along with my research, I am also a gastroenterologist and hepatologist, and I work with patients with fatty liver disease. A lot of our work for this research project was inadvertently done on samples of patients with fatty liver disease, because people with insulin resistance have an increased predisposition to it. 25-30% of the world’s population has fatty liver disease, and there’s no cure. I'm hoping to translate our work into a better understanding of what is driving the development of fatty liver disease and, hopefully, into a way to reverse it.
How did you become interested in science?
Early on, I thought science was really cool. In high school, I had a biology teacher and mentor, Dr. Susan Offner, who got her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has subsequently passed away. She was really interested in getting her students interested in research. In particular, we used early sequencing data to do cladistics and evolutionary biology and determine the evolutionary history and evolutionary tree of various organisms. I was looking at the evolutionary history of the organism that causes malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, and we found some interesting stuff. I think it was those kinds of experiences that got me into science, and having a really great mentor who opened my eyes to how cool biology can be.
What led you to become a physician-scientist?
As I said, I have had a real passion for science since high school. Then, entering college, I knew I was passionate about biology, and I subsequently did chemistry in college. I was thinking about just getting a PhD, but then I found out about this MD-PhD program, and thought maybe this is a better route for me. I've since learned that I love taking care of patients, and hopefully some of this research that I'm doing actually can translate into better patient care and better patient outcomes.
How do you hope your science impacts patients?
My experience with the insulin receptor work really opened my eyes to what is possible. It’s become clear that we could have an impact on patient care based on our work on the insulin receptor, and that’s really exciting because that doesn’t always happen for physician-scientists. Rick [Young] is just an amazing mentor; when I joined his lab, I didn’t know that my research could impact my patients in this way, but he helps you achieve your personal best. I think the key is to always think about clinically relevant problems from a basic biological standpoint, and to think about mechanisms that really matter to my patients, things that we don't understand.
What did you want to be when you were a little kid?
When I was a very little kid, I wanted to be a history professor. Both my parents are professors of business, or they were; they actually just retired this year. I wanted to be a professor of American history, focusing on the American Civil War. I was a very unusual child. I grew up outside of Boston, and as you can imagine, we get a lot of snow. I would shovel snow and I would get some money and then at one point I was collecting Civil War memorabilia as a little child. I've been a big collector my whole life.
What do you collect now?
My current passion is vintage rock and roll t-shirts, of which I have way too many. I have a really extensive collection, with a lot of early 70s rock and roll t-shirts. I have a shirt from 1969 that was used by the people who were staffing Woodstock. I have some shirts made by Vivienne Westwood. I love music, and the reason I got into this is that when I was in college, I really wanted a Clash t-shirt, but they were so expensive. They were $50 and I thought, I just can't afford this. But I wish I bought every single one of those shirts because they're now way more expensive.
Did you collect anything else?
Everything! When I was a little child, I had a coin collection, a fountain pen collection, a watch collection, a soccer jersey collection, and a tin soldier collection. Baseball cards—I played baseball through high school, so that was a really big thing for me. I still have my collections, but the only thing I collect now is t-shirts—and I have an Italian amaro collection.
What are your hobbies?
I'm trying to buy fewer and fewer band t-shirts because my wife says we don't have any room in our house. And it's prohibitively expensive as well. My wife got into running and so I'll run a tiny bit. Running is good because it's a thing we can do together. I used to bike a lot, and I just started rock climbing.
Do you climb outdoors or in the gym?
The rock climbing is all in the gym, because I'm really terrified of heights. I can't imagine myself doing it for real. Climbing was another thing that my wife got me into, and at first, I was resistant but now I enjoy it because it lets me de-stress. Even running doesn’t let me de-stress because I find it kind of boring, so I can't stop thinking about work. As for climbing, I feel like I actually get a good workout, and it's way more dangerous. That makes me stop thinking about work, which is really good.
As a rock and roll (and band merch) fan, do you have a favorite concert that you have been to?
The thing that really does stand out, as cheesy as this may sound, is we saw Fleetwood Mac when they came back together, before Christine McVie died and before Lindsey Buckingham got kicked out again. We saw them at a terrible venue but they were just so good. Also, I just saw LCD Soundsystem. It was the first concert I’ve been to since the pandemic, and that was really special too.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I am a practicing gastroenterologist and hepatologist, so I see myself hopefully running a lab, probably in the GI division somewhere, and seeing patients some days a week. I think at the end of the day, my research will always involve patient samples and working to improve patient care. One hundred percent.
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