Associate Professor of Genetics and Development
Department of Genetics and Development
Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center
When she returned to Columbia University in 2007, 14 years after completing her PhD at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Lori Sussel joined the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center as an Associate Professor of Genetics and Development. Dr. Sussel brings a unique expertise and perspective on the beta cell that has the potential to lead to treatments and cures for both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Q: You have been studying beta cells for more than 15 years and have authored and co-authored more than 50 scientific papers on the topic, but those papers can be very challenging for a non-scientist to comprehend. Can you summarize your research for us and explain how it is leading to cures for diabetes?
A: The easiest way to think of the work my lab is doing is this: we are trying to determine how to make a beta cell. My colleagues at Columbia already know how to create new beta cells out of your skin cells, which is a very remarkable thing. The next step is to figure out how to make improved versions of your beta cells and make them more efficiently.
Q: How does ‘making a better beta cell’ translate into cures for diabetes?
A:With T1D, we are trying to understand how beta cells are formed during fetal development so that we can develop an optimized protocol to make beta cells from stem cell sources. More recently, we have also begun to explore what makes beta cells the target of the immune system. Our research indicates that the beta cell maybe somehow involved with the attack process—perhaps even sending a signal that attracts T cells. Once we have determined how and why this is happening, we can make a better version of those beta cells—one that the body would simply not attack.
At the same time, we are trying to determine why, in T2D, beta cells eventually stop functioning and either die or return to an earlier state of development. We will then make better beta cells that will go on producing insulin indefinitely for people who live with this form of the disease.
A: As with all cells in our bodies, the origins of beta cells can be found early on in our embryonic development. We need to understand what is going on during those early development stages—what molecular switches are being turned on or off that are causing beta cells to be formed. Once we understand these processes at a molecular level, we can determine how to efficiently generate new, improved personalized beta cells for people living with T1D and T2D.
To do this, we combine the techniques of molecular biology, mouse genetics, histology and mouse embryology, building on my past research into the specification, differentiation and maturation of the pancreas during embryogenesis through adulthood in mice.
Q: Once you are able to produce better beta cells, how will you get them into the human body?
A: My lab could not exist in a better place—Columbia University and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center—to bring together everything we need to translate our research directly into applied cures. We already collaborate with Columbia scientists such as my fellow panelists Megan Sykes, MD, and other colleagues who have expertise in beta cell transplantation, and Domenico Accili, MD, whose work in beta cells is highly renowned.
At the same time, people who receive their diabetes care are working with Robin Goland, MD, and our clinical faculty to provide invaluable tissue samples that can be used in our research. This allows us to test and validate research findings in ways that would be impossible or very difficult elsewhere.
The Berrie Center’s patients will be among the first to benefit from the research we are doing and the therapies that are being developed at Columbia.
Q: What are some of the most significant limiting factors to your research?
A: The greatest limiting factor is the limit of our knowledge, which is why I often describe my research as trying to find the proverbial 50 pieces of the puzzle that are missing from the box. One of the ways we can increase our knowledge is to inspire others to invest in our work and, in turn, to cure diabetes.
Our research constantly generates a massive amount of data that needs to be analyzed—we call this bioinformatics—and while Columbia has a number of renowned computational biologists, none of them specialize in diabetes. As a result, we outsource most of this work, hiring other organizations to do it for us. We would exponentially increase our pace of discovery if we could secure funding to build a diabetes bioinformatics core at the Berrie Center and recruit a team of computational biologists who were focused on diabetes.
We are also in need of funding for our post-doctoral students, especially those who are not US citizens. Post-docs are a critical part of our diabetes research program, but many are not eligible for federal funding because they are not US citizens. Making a philanthropic investment in some of the most talented, young diabetes researchers in the world would have a tremendous impact and would remove a significant limiting factor in our quest to develop cures for diabetes.
Click here to support Dr. Sussel's work at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center.