Unger to address half-century of diabetes research in PLS

By Kristen Holland Shear / April 21-30, 2011

More than 25 million children and adults in the U.S. — roughly 8.3 percent of the population — have diabetes, and the numbers continue to rise.

As with many diseases, future treatments for both Type 1 (insulin-dependent) and Type 2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes lie at the molecular and genetic level. UT Southwestern is at the forefront of this effort, having assembled an elite team of researchers to study the cells and tissues affected by diabetes and its co-morbidities — including cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and some forms of cancer — in order to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of this growing public-health threat.

Dr. Roger Unger

Much of this groundbreaking work takes place within the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research, where physician-scientists, including Dr. Roger Unger, are devoted to the study of the cells and tissues that either contribute to or are affected by diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Dr. Unger, who is also a physician at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center, has investigated diabetes, obesity and insulin resistance for more than 50 years. He’ll discuss his life’s work in the next installment of the President’s Lecture Series on June 9. His talk, “Suppressing Diabetes: A Fifty-Year Odyssey,” begins at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

Dr. Unger’s research focuses on understanding and defining the interrelationships between obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a collection of health risk factors that increases an individual’s chances of developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. His laboratory introduced the concept of lipotoxicity — the accumulation of lipids in inappropriate locations — as a potential cause of diabetes and other metabolic syndrome diseases such as insulin resistance and fatty liver. Through decades of scientific investigation, his lab has provided crucial insights into how glucagon, a hormone produced by the pancreas that raises glucose levels, plays a central role in causing diabetes.

In Type 1 diabetes, historically known as juvenile-onset diabetes, the pancreatic islet cells that produce insulin are destroyed by an autoimmune process. Patients with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin multiple times a day to metabolize blood glucose and regiment their diets. About 1 million people in the U.S. are affected by Type 1 diabetes. There is no cure, and insulin treatment has been the gold standard for Type 1 diabetes since its discovery in 1922.

In comparison, Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body is unable to make enough of the hormone insulin to compensate for insulin resistance. The condition affects between 18 million and 20 million people in the U.S. and is usually linked to obesity, age and limited physical activity. Glucagon is also involved, but it plays a different role than in Type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Unger said the increase in the number of patients with insulin-resistant Type 2 diabetes can be traced to the epidemic of obesity that began in the U.S. after World War II, when food preparation was moved from the family kitchen to factories and companies that produce high-fat, calorie-dense foods for profit. In addition, technological advancements such as televisions, computers and automobiles have reduced the number of calories burned per day.

“There’s no way that our genes could have evolved so quickly to gird themselves against the superabundance of very, very high-calorie foods that have flooded the U.S.,” he said.

Dr. Unger, professor of internal medicine in the Touchstone Diabetes Center, earned his medical degree from Columbia University. He completed his residency in internal medicine at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital and joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1956.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received numerous awards for his research.

The President’s Lecture Series was established in 2005 as a means for faculty members or senior administrators to share their work with the entire campus community. The one-hour lectures are offered several times each academic year and feature a discussion in everyday language on the basics of research and clinical programs, along with the broad implications of those programs for health and medicine. Each talk is followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to visit informally with the speaker.

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Dr. Unger holds the Touchstone/West Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research.