The 2018 Naomi Berrie Diabetes Research Panel showcased the rich collaborations among researchers at the Berrie Center and other Columbia disciplines—as well as collaborations outside of Columbia. This year the Research Panel had a slightly different feel from previous years as it included a neuroscientist who studies the brain’s role in diabetes, a cancer researcher who compared the basic biology of cancer cells to mechanisms of beta cell de-differentiation in diabetes and a CEO from a biotech venture, a company based on discoveries made at the Berrie Center.
“We’re proud to work with everyone we can, not only at Columbia but elsewhere,” said, Berrie Center Co-Director and panel moderator Robin Goland, MD, the J. Merrill Eastman Professor of Clinical diabetes. “Because that is how the great discoveries are made.”
Co-Director Rudolph Leibel, MD, the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial Professor of Diabetes Research was co-moderator. Said Dr. Leibel, “Idea generation is enhanced by bringing together very smart people who have diverse areas of interest and are aware of each other’s activities. These things are catalyzed by proximity—and they take off.”
The panelists were Domenico Accili, Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes; Dr. Andrea Califano, PhD, Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Dr. Rui Costa, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience, Chief Executive Officer Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and Charles Queenan, Co-Founder and CEO of Forkhead BioTherapeutics, Inc.
The audience was captivated to hear about Forkhead, a biotechnology company started by Charles Queenan and Dr. Accili based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Accili who has demonstrated the ability of suppression of the transcription factor Foxo1 to transform cells in the gut into insulin-producing cells. The new company aims to exploit this discovery by developing an oral agent—a pill—to treat insulin-dependent diabetes.
Said Dr. Accili, “Over the years we’ve done this panel and time and again and you’ve asked me ‘how soon, how soon?’ Well, how soon is now. This has gone from the realm of good intentions to a real business plan and we think that this is our best shot at transforming how insulin is delivered for people with diabetes.”
The audience was equally interested when Dr. Accili introduced Hua Lin, PhD, a 2008 Berrie Fellow, who has spent the last decade working in the pharmaceutical industry endeavoring to translate research discoveries into products. She recently came back to New York to work at the Berrie Center with Dr. Accili. “We are at an inflection point in Dr. Accili’s lab where we can really take it full speed ahead to develop and optimize compounds that can be tested safely in humans,” said Dr. Lin. “We are early on in our journey but we’re very excited and cautiously optimistic.”
The evening was very positive as the panelists talked about how their respective disciplines of bioinformatics, neuroscience and biotech might one day help, even cure, people with diabetes. Said Dr. Goland, “Now more amazing scientists from various disciplines at Columbia are turning their enormous firepower from their laboratories to collaborate with diabetes scientists. This is very likely to yield important discoveries that will be used to help people with diabetes.”
The panelists were equally as captivated with the members of the Berrie Center community in the audience who openly shared their experiences living with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Costa stressed what he viewed as the great “purpose” of the evening. “It is one thing to study the neurology of diabetes in a laboratory, and another to hear patients describe the symptoms of a high or low blood sugar first hand. It adds enormous value.”