Graeme Ian Bell, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and an investigator in the Kovler Diabetes Center at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the Manpei Suzuki International Prize for 2012 for his pioneering work in understanding the role of genetics in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes.
The prize, the world’s largest award for diabetes research, includes a certificate of honor, a Japanese objet d’art and a $150,000 prize. Inaugurated in 2008 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Foundation, the prize honors “those who have enlightened researchers in the field of diabetes around the world with their original and excellent scientific achievements.”
Bell is being recognized, according to the selection committee, for his “extensive and groundbreaking contributions over many years to many landmark discoveries in diabetes research utilizing the powerful technologies of molecular biology and genetics.” He will receive the prize and present a commemorative lecture at the award ceremony in Tokyo on Feb. 5, 2013.
Bell is the second scientist from the University of Chicago to win this prestigious award in the five years it has been given. His colleague Donald F. Steiner, the A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, received the award for 2009.
“This is a wonderful honor and a very pleasant surprise,” Bell said. “I am proud to find myself among such distinguished company and pleased that work from our laboratory and our many collaborators has had an impact on the field and been recognized in this way.”
Bell studies the genetics of diabetes mellitus and the biology of the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta-cell. He cloned and characterized many of the genes that are key in the regulation of glucose metabolism including insulin, glucagon, glucose transporters and many others.
Working with colleague Nancy Cox, Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and Section Chief of Genetic Medicine, Bell discovered mutations in the genes for glucokinase and for three transcription factors that cause an early-onset form of diabetes called maturity-onset diabetes of the young. Once thought to be very rare, this form of diabetes represents up to 5 percent of cases. Correct genetic diagnosis can alter treatment and improve clinical outcome.
“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Graeme’s research in diabetes is its scope,” Cox said. “He has made fundamental discoveries, but he also wants to make sure that patients benefit quickly from those advances. He engages with scientists in health care economics to evaluate the costs and benefits of translating the research findings into routine patient care, and works with clinicians to develop protocols for that translation. Few have the ability and the drive to do basic, translational and clinical research so effectively. This is a well-deserved honor.”
Bell is a key member of the University of Chicago Medicine’s diabetes genetics team, whose work involves using genetics to personalize treatment targeted to a patient’s specific genetic defect. Babies with diabetes provide the most dramatic example of this approach. Nearly half have diabetes due to mutations in genes. Some of these children can be treated with pills that compensate for the genetic defect, rather than with insulin shots. More than 1,500 patients and family members are now participating in genetic studies aimed at improving treatment through a better understanding of genetics.
The Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Foundation promotes research on diabetes by encouraging international contacts among young scientists. Manpei Suzuki, former chairman of the Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association of Japan, chairman of the Board of Directors of Sankyo Co. Ltd. and member of the Japanese House of Councilors, suffered from diabetes mellitus in the last years of his life. In keeping with his last wishes, his widow Mitsu Suzuki established a foundation to support diabetes research.
According to the foundation, “more creative basic and applied studies are required due to the rapid aging of society which will occur in the 21st century.” The international exchange among researchers that the foundation supports “will help improve health care technology and develop new health care resources in Japan. This, in turn, will lead to improvements in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diabetes, a disease which affects many people and can have serious consequences for their quality of life.”