2/25/2014
Rebecca Haeusler, PhD
April Diabetes Research Panelist

At 35, Rebecca Haeusler, PhD, is one of the youngest scientists at the Naomi Berrie Center to have her own laboratory. Her niche, or special area of study, is the link between cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) and diabetes. She is a 2010 Naomi Berrie Fellow, a 2012 Schaefer Research Scholar—and on April 2, she will be one of the diabetes research scientists on the Berrie Center Diabetes Research Panel. This event, being held at the University Club in New York City, will translate the cutting edge advances in diabetes research to diabetes patients and their families and friends.

What Dr. Haeusler has to say about the increased risk for cardiovascular disease in diabetes may surprise you. Using mouse models, her research suggests that it has less to do with high blood sugar, and more to do with cholesterol. Elevated cholesterol levels are strongly associated with heart attack and stroke, and Dr. Haeusler has focused on problems in cholesterol transport and clearance as a potential novel factor in the elevated risk for cardiovascular disease in diabetes.

A process called reverse cholesterol transport results in movement of cholesterol from the tissues back to the liver via the bloodstream. “We have evidence that suggests that this process is defective in people with diabetes,” said Dr. Haeusler. One possible consequence of this defective transport process in diabetes (which may occur, she said, even if a patient’s cholesterol levels are normal) is that cholesterol may not efficiently be moved out of the arteries where it can build up as plaque or atherosclerosis, the cause of heart attack and stroke. This work can potentially lead to novel treatments for people who have diabetes-related cardiovascular disease that focus on improving cholesterol transport out of the tissues including the arteries. “This is an area that hasn’t been fully explored, but finding a way to improve reverse cholesterol transport could impact a lot of patients,” she said.

Rebecca Haeusler’s path to the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center began in Farmington, Michigan where she developed an interest in math and science in high school—and took it with her to MIT in 1996 to study Engineering. She switched her major to  biology (“I loved being in a lab and doing research,” she said), and received her PhD from the University of Michigan in Biochemistry. “I worked on very basic research that wasn’t related to any disease,” she recalled. “I knew I wanted to study a disease. I just didn’t know what I wanted to study, until further into graduate school when I took a class on insulin and leptin signaling. I got excited about it. Really excited. One of my professors recommended that I apply to Dr. Domenico Accili’s laboratory at the Berrie Center to do postdoctoral research. He took me on, and that was just an amazing turning point in my life.”

Dr. Haeusler began her post-doc research in 2007. It was Dr. Accili who encouraged Dr. Haeusler to pursue her interest in diabetes and heart disease by collaborating with other world-renowned scientists at Columbia who were studying lipid metabolism and atherosclerosis. “I come out of an environment where I can investigate the links between those two diseases – diabetes and atherosclerosis - because I have the expertise in both,” said Dr. Haeusler, who is now an Assistant Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University. “I have Dr. Accili to thank for that. He provided me with the time to get my legs beneath me, the space to learn new fields, the intellectual freedom to make new discoveries and act on them as an independent researcher.”

In addition to Dr. Haeusler, the April Diabetes Research Panel scientists are Berrie Center and Columbia faculty members, Robin Goland, MD, J. Merrill Eastman Professor of Medicine and Berrie Center Co-Director, Rudolph Leibel, MD, Christopher Murphy Professor of Pediatrics and Berrie Center Co-Director, who will moderate the panel and  Domenico Accili, MD, Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Medicine and an international leader in the field of beta cell biology; Wendy Chung, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, a renowned clinical and molecular geneticist; Dieter Egli, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, a stem cell scientist whose discovery of a new way to make patient-specific stem cells was named Time Magazine’s #1 medical discovery of 2011; and Michael Rosenbaum, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, an expert on the physiology of body weight regulation.

To RSVP to the April Diabetes Research Panel contact Morgan Tupper at 212-304-7210 or met2170@columbia.edu