Working to beat diabetes through groundbreaking scientific research

Dr. Philipp Scherer
Dr. Philipp Scherer

At UT Southwestern, exceptional patient care is fueled by groundbreaking scientific research. One of the most evident examples of this synergy is seen in the treatment and research of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Since its establishment in 2007, UT Southwestern’s Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research has used a multidisciplinary approach to produce game-changing findings that answer some of the most complex and relevant questions about the molecular functions of diabetes, as well as improving ways to treat it.

The Center is led by renowned diabetes researcher Dr. Philipp Scherer, Professor of Internal Medicine and Cell Biology. This past year, Dr. Scherer was awarded the Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement, the highest honor bestowed by the American Diabetes Association. The medal honors significant, long-term contributions to the understanding, treatment, or prevention of diabetes.

“Dr. Scherer is an exceptional scientist advancing understanding of the mechanisms underlying the manifestation of diabetes. His research has defined the molecular mechanisms through which fat cells communicate with organs. These findings may lead to new ways of fighting diabetes and other obesity-related diseases,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern and holder of the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

The Banting Medal previously had been awarded to three other UT Southwestern researchers, a testament to long-standing excellence in this area – the late Dr. J. Denis McGarry, Professor of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, in 2001; Dr. Daniel Foster, Professor of Internal Medicine and holder of the John Denis McGarry, Ph.D. Distinguished Chair in Diabetes and Metabolic Research, in 1984; and Dr. Roger Unger, Professor of Internal Medicine and holder of the Touchstone/West Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research, in 1975.

Dr. Scherer, who holds the Gifford O. Touchstone, Jr. and Randolph G. Touchstone Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research, is known for his discovery of adiponectin, a hormone produced by fat, and for defining its physiologic roles. Adipose tissue previously had been considered simply as a storage depot for triglycerides, but Dr. Scherer’s studies revealed that adipose tissue is in fact a highly responsive endocrine organ that plays a crucial role in metabolism and inflammation. His innovative contributions have been described in more than 320 publications, some of which have been cited more than 1,000 times, and comprise a comprehensive characterization of adipose tissue physiology.

“Our research over the last 10 years has examined the pathophysiology of fat tissue in diabetes and obesity and was done with a highly integrated group of UT Southwestern researchers, including talented junior faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and students,” said Dr. Scherer.

The Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research was established with a gift from Marjorie and Lucian Touchstone, the Gifford Foundation, and Carol and Gifford Touchstone to support the development of new treatments aimed at ameliorating and ultimately preventing this disease.

The pediatric diabetes research of Dr. Olga Gupta, another member of the Touchstone Diabetes Center, is having an immediate impact on the ways in which children and adolescents manage their Type 1 diabetes. In a study published last year, Dr. Gupta examined the effects of incorporating a simple, schedule-oriented activity like pet care into children’s diabetes management routines.

The study followed 28 adolescents ages 10 to 17 with Type 1 diabetes, and instructed each child to feed their fish in the morning and in the evening, checking their own blood glucose level each time. Then, they were asked to change one-fourth of the water in the fish bowl once a week and review their own blood glucose logs with a caregiver. Dr. Gupta and her team found that the disciplined, routine aspect of caring for the fish, alongside their daily diabetes routines, significantly improved monitoring of the disease, resulting in lower blood glucose levels.

“Teenagers are one of the most difficult patient populations to treat, mainly because of the many psychosocial factors associated with that stage of life,” said Dr. Gupta, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine and a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care, who treats patients at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. “The decrease in blood glucose levels was greater in the participants ages 10 to13 most likely because children in this age group are often beginning to seek independence from their parents, and were more eager to care for the fish than some of the older adolescents.”

An estimated 29.1 million Americans have diabetes, in which the body either fails to produce insulin needed to convert sugar and starches into energy, or does not produce enough insulin to keep blood glucose at normal levels, according to the American Diabetes Association.