Since they were established nearly 15 years ago through the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Naomi Berrie Awards for Achievement in Diabetes Research have provided critical seed funding to 27 of the world’s most promising diabetes researchers. In tandem with the Awards, the Frontiers in Diabetes Research Symposium, held at the Berrie Center each November for the past 14 consecutive years, has gathered more than 2,500 physicians, scientists, students, fellows, faculty and other diabetes professionals from 70 institutions in a spirit of collaboration and discovery.
Designed to accomplish three goals—fostering the training of young scientists, recognizing the outstanding contributions and achievements of senior scientists, and advancing the field of research for cures for diabetes—the Berrie Awards and Frontier Symposium have been emulated by universities across the country.
With a recent, generous $2.7 million gift, the Russell Berrie Foundation has extended the Berrie Awards and Frontier Symposium for an additional five years and added a new Scholars Award component. “Thanks to the vision and generosity of the Russell Berrie Foundation,” said Rudolph Leibel, MD, Co-Director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, “the first generation of Berrie Award recipients will soon occupy leadership positions across the country in the field of diabetes research.”
The Frontiers Symposium is hosted annually in November at the Russell Berrie Medical Science Pavilion. Over the years, more than 100 speakers from 50 institutions have given lectures on topics ranging from the immunobiology of type 1 diabetes to trends in stem cell research, molecular genetics of diabetes, the biology of the beta cell, and more.
The Berrie Award is Columbia’s top honor for excellence in diabetes research. Each year, the recipients of the two mentor-based Berrie Awards are announced at the Frontiers Symposium. One award supports a two-year fellowship for a diabetes researcher at Columbia. Last year, Hongxia Ren, PhD, an associate research scientist in the laboratory of the Berrie Center’s Domenico Accili, MD, received the prize for her continued work on the brain pathway that regulates food intake and satiation.
To foster collaboration with organizations and scientists external to Columbia University, the second Berrie Award is granted to an established diabetes researcher from another university or organization, in support of a two-year fellowship for a post-doctoral student to continue an aspect of his or her research. In 2012, this award went to the laboratory of Christophe Benoist, MD, PhD and Diane Mathis, PhD, at Harvard Medical School in recognition of their trailblazing work over the last three decades that has expanded the understanding of the disease mechanism underlying type 1 diabetes.
In a current climate where government funding for scientific investigation is dwindling—for every 100 grants reviewed by the NIH, only 10 will be funded—the Berrie Frontiers Program, and its cornerstone Naomi Berrie Awards, have become a model for the advancement of not only diabetes research but also other fields of medical research. Still, says Dr. Christophe Benoit, “There’s an unusual generosity that comes with the Berrie Awards. The Berrie Center is a research institution in and of itself, yet it is helping to support other institutions. We’re all in this for the same goal—and this prize illustrates that very well. There’s really something quite unique here.”
Drs. Benoist and Mathis recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of their laboratory, which began in Stasbourg, France in 1984. Their work has provided invaluable insights into the basic immunobiology of T cells as they relate to type 1 diabetes. Many of their discoveries were made possible by their development of a mouse model that allowed them to uncover the central importance of T cells in ordering the destruction of beta cells in T1D. This model, unique when it was developed in the early 1990s, is still used today in scores of other laboratories to explore the autoimmune mechanism in type 1 diabetes. Their work is credited with reawakening research interest in the mechanism by which newly developed T cells in mouse models learn to tolerate foreign cells and tissues as self.
Hongxia Ren, PhD, the junior Naomi Berrie Award recipient has been a research scientist in the lab of Domenico Accili, MD since 2009. Dr. Accili will continue to be her mentor as a Naomi Berrie Fellow as she studies the signaling activity of the gene Gpr17 in the neuron AgRP believed to be critical in regulating food intake and metabolism. She is also studying the function of the same gene in insulin production and hepatic glucose production, two key pathologically important aspects associated with diabetes. “Being funded by this fellowships helps the continuation of my work,” Dr. Ren said, "which has implications for the treatment of obesity and diabetes."
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