From his laboratory on the second floor of the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion at Columbia University, scientist and physician, Dr. Domenico Accili, MD, and his research team, are quietly changing the future for people with diabetes. “Right now we’re very excited about two areas of research,” said Dr. Accili, Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes.
The first discovery—that cells in the intestines of mice could be genetically manipulated to produce insulin—introduces a possible new source of insulin for people with type 1 diabetes. “We were astonished,” said Dr. Accili, that insulin could be produced outside the pancreas. His second discovery showed that the pancreatic insulin-producing cells in mice with type 2 diabetes did not die off with the progression of the disease, as previously thought, but instead reverted back to an earlier stage of development. These de-differentiated cells, he says, can be tweaked to turn back into insulin producing cells. “It’s stunning,” he said.
Dr. Accili’s colleagues see him as an expansive thinker and iconoclast in the world of diabetes research—someone who pushes the boundaries of conventional wisdom. He recently talked, with great enthusiasm, about the future of his research. “One of my secrets is to see opportunity in complexity,” he said about his research philosophy. What follows is an edited excerpt of what he had to say:
If 2012 was the year of discovery for your lab, how would you describe 2013?
In 2013, our plan is to validate that what occurs in our laboratory mice also occurs in people with diabetes. We have already created a cell culture system where we turn human cells into a replica of the human gut to see if we can reproduce our observations about insulin producing cells. This is a necessary next step before we can make a drug that would turn human gut cells into pancreatic beta-like cells. The progress has been extraordinarily promising. We have been able to replicate some of our mouse findings and we’re very optimistic we’re going to see this to fruition in patients with diabetes.
And your beta cell de-differentiation research?
Again, we have to make sure that in human patients with diabetes there is also de-differentiation of the insulin-producing cells. Once this is out of the way, we can, in earnest, begin a search for compounds for drugs that reverse or stop the process. I’m very confident that we will apply our discoveries to human diabetes by the end of 2013. It’s an ambitious program, but we very well positioned to meet our goals.
I understand that you have a rather interesting life outside the Naomi Berrie Center as a patron of the Metropolitan Opera—sometimes attending twice a week during the season.
Oh yes I love good classical singing. I have since I was a young man. It provides a counterpoint for me––some kind of way to unwind and put my scientific mind to rest.
You’re a runner as well?
Running is a time for me to think about my experiments outside the lab. It’s a way for me to put my scientific mind to work rather than tuning it out.
Click here to watch Dr. Accili talk about these two research projects.