SciMar scientist zeroes in on the HISS molecule

Dr. Randall Gieni has been at the threshold of three paradigm-shifting discoveries in his research career, but it took joining the SciMar team in 2018 for him to have the opportunity to cross the finish line.

Randall Gieni
SciMar’s Dr. Randall Gieni: “It isn’t until something is taken away that one truly realizes its importance in one’s life.”

First came his allergy research at the University of Manitoba, where Dr. Gieni and his colleagues figured out how to reverse egg allergies in mice, earning him a PhD in immunology. The research flourished during his Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford University where Dr. Gieni developed a new strategy to reverse allergies. The work, however, never got out of the lab and into the market.

“No pharmaceutical company wants to cure allergies,” says Dr. Gieni. “They make so much money on symptom relief, that a one-time cure isn’t in their interest.”

And so, without a pathway to commercialization, that work remains unfulfilled.

Dr. Gieni was exploring job opportunities and presenting his research at universities across Canada when a frightening attack by a black bear at Tooth Lake in Manitoba’s Nopiming Provincial Park altered his path.

While camping in 1998 with his then young sons of 12 and eight, Gieni came face-to-face with an aggressive bear that assumed the camper was going to take the bear’s booty of discarded fish waste left by some irresponsible fishers. The bear charged, but Gieni kept his cool and was able to momentarily stun the beast by whacking him over the head with a paddle before scrambling 15 feet up a nearby tree.

“Being a very intelligent animal, instead of climbing the tree, the bear figured out that he could just push on the tree,” says Gieni. “He pushed and waited, then pushed and waited. Somehow he figured out the oscillation of the tree.”

The fragile branches to which Gieni clung gave way and he fell onto the bear shattering his own shoulder, breaking his arm, and fracturing his skull in the process.

“I was knocked unconscious; I don’t know for how long,” he says. “I awoke to the bear licking blood off my face. I had enough sense to play dead and he eventually wandered back to his prize pile of fish waste.”

With that, Gieni sprang up and ran for his boat, pushing off into the water with the bear again in close pursuit. He heard the bear’s claws against the aluminum bow of the boat just as he was able to push away, allowing the boat to drift from danger. The bear ultimately wandered off. Governed by adrenaline, Gieni somehow made it back to shore to retrieve his sons and get out of the area.

They drove away on an off-road trail and made it back to the highway. By now, shock was setting in so Gieni pulled off the highway but lost consciousness before coming to a complete stop causing his vehicle to roll into a ditch, flip, and land upside down. The next thing he remembered was being helped out of the vehicle by passersby.

It was a harrowing experience that required over 18 months of rehabilitation, but didn’t put a damper on his enthusiasm for the outdoors. And so, Gieni found himself healing while living in a cabin on Fox Lake in Ontario, working as a freelance academic editor and ghostwriter, starting and ending each day with some fishing. He also took the opportunity away from hands-on research to build and maintain two science websites designed for non-expert audiences. Yet, Gieni yearned to resume an active research career. “It isn’t until something is taken away that one truly realizes its importance in one’s life,” he says.

Gieni accepted a Research Associate position in the Hendzel Laboratory at the University of Alberta where another line of paradigm-shifting science was ongoing. It was discovered that a molecule required for uncontrolled cancer cell growth also enhanced the cancer’s ability to repair its DNA thereby providing cancer cells with resistance to radiation used in conventional cancer therapy. Utilizing a specific inhibitor of the over-expressed molecule, Dr. Gieni had promising results in reducing the survival of irradiated breast cancer stem cells. Today, the concept of cancer stem cells and their resistance to DNA-damaging therapies is the paradigm utilized to study cancers and design treatment plans, but just a few years ago there was little funding available to move the innovative research forward.

In 2016, he took a position as a Research Associate at the Vaccine and Drug Evaluation Centre at the University of Manitoba. There he met Dallas Legare, a former colleague of Dr. W. Wayne Lautt, the discoverer of HISS and SciMar’s co-founder. Legare re-joined Dr. Lautt in 2018 to launch SciMar’s lab and recruited Dr. Gieni to the team.

The rest as they say is history, or should we say HISStory?

Today, Dr. Gieni has turned his attention to type 2 diabetes, nutrient partitioning, and hepatic insulin-sensitizing substance (the HISS hormone). As Senior Research Scientist at SciMar, he plays a key role in shaping and advancing the new paradigm in type 2 diabetes prevention, detection, and treatment. Specifically, he is responsible for running the mass spectrometer, the sophisticated piece of machinery at the heart of SciMar’s research.

Mass spectrometry, in general terms, is used to identify proteins by mass and to characterize their chemical structure. At SciMar, mass spectrometry is being used to identify the HISS molecule using plasma from rats. With the SciMar NuPa Test clinical trial now underway, Dr. Gieni and his peers will soon be studying and characterizing HISS from human blood samples. In terms of changing a health and medicine paradigm, he is closer to the finish line than he has ever been before.

Dr. Gieni came to the lab with his life-long passion to improve human health, especially eager to do battle against type 2 diabetes, a disease that has touched his brother and both of his parents.

“With allergies and cancer research, I tried to push the envelope,” says Dr. Gieni. “Now I am fortunate enough to do so again with type 2 diabetes. It is important that we solve this. It’s a global problem that’s increasing at a ridiculous rate!”

The finish line that has eluded him in the past is now clearly in sight.