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Columbia honors Philipp Scherer for helping to define body fat as major endocrine organ

NEW YORK, NY, Nov. 18, 2013 Columbia University Medical Center has honored Philipp E. Scherer, PhD, with the 15th Naomi Berrie Award for Outstanding Research in Diabetes, for his work that helped usher in a new understanding of fat and its role in diabetes and other metabolic diseases. His discovery of adiponectin, a hormone produced by fat, helped transform the scientific concept of fat as an inert storage depot to one of it as an endocrine "organ" that exerts control over the brain, muscles, and other organs. The award, given annually by CUMC's Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, is Columbia's top honor for excellence in diabetes research.

"Dr. Scherer's work in diabetes research has always ranked among the most creative in the field," said Rudolph L. Leibel, MD, the Christopher J. Murphy Professor of Diabetes Research, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at CUMC, and chair of the selection committee. "His comprehensive analysis of fat tissue physiology has helped to elucidate the molecular basis for the relationship of obesity to insulin resistance, diabetes, and, metabolic syndrome; it helped to launch studies of the role of fat in inflammation and cancer."

Dr. Scherer's studies of adiponectin revealed the hormone's potent anti-diabetes effects: blocking glucose production in the liver and improving insulin sensitivity in muscle. Because adiponectin levels fall as fatness levels rise, drugs that increase adiponectin may be effective in fighting diabetes and other consequences of obesity.

More recently, Dr. Scherer helped establish that obesity itself is not the direct cause of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, but rather is initially protective by directing excess lipid away from critical tissues such as muscle and liver. In a conceptual leap, he showed that expansion of "healthy fat" tissue in mouse models can maintain metabolic health.

Dr. Scherer is professor of internal medicine, holds the Gifford O. Touchstone Jr. and Randolph G. Touchstone Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research, and is director of the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research, at UT Southwestern Medical Center, located in Dallas. His work on the physiology of the adipocyte, cells that store energy as fat, has been reported in more than 280 publications, some of which have been cited more than 1,000 times.

With his award, Dr. Scherer will receive $130,000 to provide a two-year research fellowship for a student or research fellow in his laboratory. Dr. Scherer has selected Risheng Jeff Ye, PhD, for this support. Dr. Ye will further define the role of adipocyte-derived factors, in particular the specific role of adiponectin, in the regeneration of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells in the context of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Naomi Berrie Fellow in Diabetes Research Award

Deniz Atalayer, PhD, and Nichole Danzl, PhD, MPhil, are to share the 2013 Naomi Berrie Fellow Award, an award given annually to support a junior diabetes investigator(s) at CUMC. They will share a $130,000 award.

Dr. Atalayer is a postdoctoral fellow studying the regulation of body weight. Previous research has shown that blocking certain opioid receptors in the brain prevents weight gain in rodents but the same approach in humans has shown only limited success. Dr. Atalayer plans to study opioid regulation of key hypothalamic POMC and AgRP neurons, which inhibit and stimulate food intake respectively, in order to understand how this system can be more effectively manipulated in response to opioid antagonists to improve weight loss. She is a postdoctoral research scientist in the laboratory of Sharon L. Wardlaw, MD, the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Professor of Obesity Research (in Medicine).

Dr. Danzl's research is aimed at elucidating the intrinsic immunologic defects that promote the development of type 1 diabetes. In the past, such studies have relied on analysis of cells from patients who have already developed the disease, leaving unclear which defects cause disease and which are a consequence of disease. With a new mouse model that contains the human immune system of the human donor, Dr. Danzl plans to identify the defects in immune regulation that contribute to type 1 diabetes. Her aim is to use this personalized immune mouse model to find new treatment strategies for people with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Danzl is a postdoctoral research fellow in the laboratory of Megan Sykes, MD, the Michael J. Friedlander Professor of Medicine, professor of microbiology & immunology and of surgical sciences (in surgery), and director of the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology.

The Berrie Fellowship provides an opportunity for intensive training in a biomedical research laboratory. Recipients over the past 15 years have gone on to outstanding careers in diabetes research.

Russell Berrie Foundation Scholar in Diabetes Research Award

The Russell Berrie Foundation Scholar in Diabetes Research Award was established in 2013 to enable international researchers to work for up to two years in laboratories affiliated with the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. Luis Arnes, PhD, of Spain, and Ernico Bertaggia, PhD, of Italy, are the first recipients of this award. They will share a $300,000 grant.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes ultimately result in beta-cell loss and/or dysfunction. Replacing lost beta cells with new ones generated from stem cells or induced pluripotent cells is a promising therapeutic approach; however scientists have not been able to create fully functional beta cells with high efficiency. Dr. Arnes is studying how a recently discovered group of RNA molecules in the pancreas regulates beta cell development, and whether those RNAs can improve researchers' ability to generate beta cells suitable for the treatment of patients with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Arnes is a postdoctoral research fellow in the laboratory of Lori Sussel, PhD, associate professor of genetics and development.

In the past decade, research has revealed that bile acidswell known for their role in the absorption of dietary fatsalso activate multiple receptors and regulate glucose, lipid, and cholesterol metabolism. The Haeusler lab has recently found that an increase in certain bile acids is associated with progressive insulin resistance in humans. Dr. Bertaggia will investigate how bile acids may promote diabetes progression and how they may be therapeutically targeted. Dr. Bertaggia will be a postdoctoral research scientist in the laboratory of Rebecca Haeusler, PhD, assistant professor of pathology & cell biology, a member of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, and a 2010 Naomi Berrie Fellow.

Awards Given at the 15th Annual Frontiers in Diabetes Research Conference

The awards ceremony took place at the 15th annual Frontiers in Diabetes Research Conference on November 16, 2013, in the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion at Columbia University Medical Center.

The Naomi Berrie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diabetes Research was established by the Russell Berrie Foundation in 2000. For more information about the annual Frontiers Conference and a list of past award recipients, visit:


Contact: Elizabeth Streich
Columbia University Medical Center

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