Although now studying to be a veterinarian, graduate student Jon Lou originally had planned to be an orchestral musician. After he earned a Bachelor of Music at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and a Master of Music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an arm injury forced him to pursue other careers.
At this stage, helping animals was only a hobby. “Growing up I always had dogs and cats, and I was always interested in animals.” Lou had been volunteering at the San Francisco Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA) while studying at the Conservatory. Later he got a job at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. This is when Lou began to consider turning his passion into a career. “I never imagined I could get into Vet School, but my boss and coworkers were encouraging, and they opened those doors for me.”
Upon enrolling at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2015, Lou began pursuing research opportunities. He conducted summer research projects through the Veterinary Investigator’s Program (VIP) and the Leadership Program for Veterinary Students at Cornell with Bethany Cummings, Biomedical Sciences, as his mentor. Lou later approached Cummings about joining her research lab, where he began conducting research on diabetes treatments.
Conducting Diabetes Lab Research
“Although diabetes treatments have improved, there are still a lot of grey areas left to explore.” One of these grey areas, Lou explains, is a hormone known as GLP1. The hormone, secreted by the intestinal L-cells usually after eating, vastly increases insulin production within the pancreas. The pancreas is key to treating diabetes due to its ability to facilitate sugar absorption.
The exact effect of the hormone and the method through which GLP1 affects insulin secretion remain ambiguous. For instance, it has been found that upon the successful completion of bariatric surgery, performed to induce weight loss, patients with diabetes undergo remission even before weight loss takes place.
“Bariatric surgery involves either slowing down digestion or reducing the size of the stomach. In both instances, we found that GLP1 levels increase significantly, facilitating greater insulin secretion.” Lou’s next step was to understand how exactly GLP1 catalyzes greater insulin secretion.
Members of the Cummings lab performed bariatric surgery on a pair of insulin-resistant mice and continued to feed each mouse the same diet. While one mouse, the control subject, had no GLP1 receptor, the other mouse had GLP1 receptors in its body. After a few weeks, Lou would perform fluorescent immunohistochemistry on the animals, which involved staining their pancreas to measure for levels of insulin, GLP1, and glucagon. Lou found that the difference in insulin levels was significant.
“The competition effectively functions as a mini-MBA. We’re taught lessons about product development, organizing our business, and securing funding for commercializing our inventions.”
The Cummings lab determined that GLP1 binds to pancreatic GLP1 receptors and signals adjacent cells that had not been producing GLP1 to begin producing it. This causes a positive feedback loop within the pancreas—exponentially increasing insulin secretion by converting previously non-GLP1-producing pancreatic cells into active producers of the hormone. The effect of this analysis demonstrates the decisive status of GLP1-stimulated insulin secretion, which should be considered the keystone of any approach toward better treatment of diabetes, according to Lou.
Shaping an Entrepreneurial Opportunity
After conducting research in the Cummings lab during the summers of his first two years at Cornell, Lou transitioned to experiential veterinary work. During these experiences, he acquired specific skills related to a variety of medical specialties by observing treatment methods in the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. While observing orthopedic surgery, Lou identified a potential entrepreneurial opportunity, which could greatly simplify a nurse's task during an operation.
“During arthroscopic surgery, a camera is inserted into a joint to view the cartilage and joint capsule. Simultaneously, the joint is irrigated with fluid with either an automated irrigation pump or a free-flowing pressure bag.”
The automated pump, Lou explains, is relatively efficient but comes with significant expense. It costs $140 per use. Another more frequent method is to use a large fluid bag, which is ensconced within a larger air-filled bag. As the larger bag is filled with air, it squeezes the inner fluid bag, creating a flow of fluid into the joint. While the mechanism is straightforward, its application is less efficient. Nurses have to fill the larger outer bag with air, using a hand pump. The process is both time-consuming and exhausting for the nurses. Lou’s response was to develop a device that would connect a foot-operated pump to the outer bag to be filled with air.
“With my product, the entire process takes only 30 seconds, which makes it up to five times faster, as well as rendering it a lot less exhausting for nurses,” says Lou. Lou entered his device into an entrepreneurship competition, held by VetPrep, an online national boards exam-prep company created by veterinarian entrepreneurs.
“The competition effectively functions as a mini-MBA. We’re taught lessons about product development, organizing our business, and securing funding for commercializing our inventions.” After winning in a semi-final round of the competition, Lou has won a place in the final round. In March 2019, as one of three finalists, he will present his pitch to the judges.
Lou says that his training at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has prepared him to become a versatile veterinarian-researcher-entrepreneur. On graduating in 2019, Lou plans to pursue specialty training in ophthalmology, a branch of medicine relating to diagnosis and treatment of the eye.