Scientific Profile: Lori Sussel, PhD
Studying the Birth of the Beta Cell and Beyond

She is “one of the leading developmental biologists in the world,” according to Rudolph Leibel, MD, Co-Director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, who introduced Lori Sussel, PhD, this past April at the 2013 NYC Diabetes Research Panel.

The Sussel laboratory at the Berrie Center studies the birth, the development and the function of beta cells in mice embryos. Ultimately, Dr. Sussel’s goal is to create a healthy supply of beta cells for people with type 1 diabetes. Her work is supported by individuals, as well as the NIH, ADA, FDR (the Foundation for Diabetes Research), NYSCF (New York Stem Cell Foundation) the JDRF and the Berrie Center and Columbia University, where Dr. Sussel is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Development.

“When I get into the details of my research, I know it gets very esoteric,” said an ebullient Lori Sussel, who grew up in British Columbia, Canada, attended the University of Texas, received a PhD from Columbia and did her post doctoral training at the University of California at San Francisco. “I presented my research to a group of non-scientists recently and I’m afraid I got them very confused.”  The science of beta cells is a difficult topic for most non-scientists to grasp, she says. 

Dr. Sussel came to the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center in 2007, after studying beta cells in her own lab at the Barbara Davis Diabetes Center at the University of Colorado.  Her Berrie Center research team recently identified a novel set of genes from a class that has already been implicated in the development of cancer and heart function. This is the second type of developmental gene her team is studying.

“We have discovered two sets of genes necessary for making beta cells,” Dr. Sussel explains. “One set of genes is the classical type that encode for proteins that are important in this process. The other set of genes encode for RNA molecules that do not encode for proteins, but are functional on their own. At this point, our goal is to show they are involved in the birth, development and/or function of a beta cell.”

This new class of genes is important for many reasons, Dr. Sussel said. “In terms of a cure for type 1 diabetes, these new molecules could add missing pieces to the puzzle that explains how to make not only beta cells, but better beta cells.”

Dr. Sussel had her "aha" moment as a graduate student at Columbia studying neurodevelopment. “It turns out that many of the genes involved in helping make the nervous system are also involved in making beta cells,” she recalls. “It was almost fortuitous that I found this out because I then saw, almost immediately, the potential for treating diabetes, by applying the same set of genes into understanding how to make a beta cell.”

For as long as she can remember, Dr. Sussel has been interested in science and in particular, cell biology. “My interest wasn’t so much focused on neurons or beta cells, per se. I just wanted to understand how any specialized cell type is programmed,” she said, explaining her primal passion and relentlessness for her work. “I am fascinated with the regulatory processes that influence the formation of a specific cell type. I think what they’re coming up against with stem cell research so far, is just how much we don’t understand about these regulatory processes. How do we take a progenitor or stem cell and say, you should be cell type “A” versus cell type “B”? How do cells know what identity to become?  We still really don’t understand that very simple principle and yet it is amazing how far we have come in making beta cells.”

The good news, said Dr. Sussel, is that each day scientists around the world are making discoveries, learning from each other’s discoveries, building on existing work and making real progress, especially when it comes to diabetes. She points to the NIH-sponsored Beta Cell Biology Consortium (BCBC), an international study group that she has been working with for the last decade. It brings together scientists from around the world to discuss and share information about their research.

Said Dr. Sussel, “As a scientist you can’t do everything on your own. My group is only going to contribute one part of the puzzle, but if we understand how to make beta cells from stem cells, or regenerate beta cells or even protect them from destruction—these are all things we cannot yet do—then our work will help all the researchers, including stem cell biologists, immunologists and clinicians who are working towards a cure. The BCBC, and collaborative research in general, is important because it will keep the science moving forward.”

Dr. Sussel lives in New York with her husband of 24 years. They are both runners.

Click here to support Dr. Sussel's research at the Berrie Center.