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Type 1 Diabetes Researcher Spotlight: Richard Siller, PhD

Date Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2022

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Dr. Siller has been a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Rene Maehr, PhD at UMass Chan Medical School since 2019.  After graduating from University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2009, he earned his master’s degree in Functional Genomics while working in two European labs. At the University of York in England Dr. Siller worked in the laboratory of Professor Mark Coles where he studied mouse models of immune and thymic cells. He was also mentored by Professor Tobias Cantz, PhD, at the Hannover Medical School in Germany, where they developed methods to generate liver cells from stem cells, with a long-term goal of providing stem-cell based therapies for liver disease.

Upon completing his master’s degree, he spent the next two years working at University of Edinburgh in Scotland, under professor Sir Ian Wilmut, who gained international fame for cloning Dolly the sheep in 1996.

Like Father Like Son

Dr. Siller received his doctoral degree in stem cell biology in Norway from the University of Oslo, where he developed a novel protocol to reprogram human stem cells into liver cells. His research in the lab of Dr. Gareth Sullivan resulted in numerous publications, but he’s most proud of Small-Molecule-Driven Hepatocyte Differentiation of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells.  “Several labs throughout the world have successfully repeated and cited our protocol,” said Dr. Siller.  “I believe it has the potential to lead to therapies for various maladies.”    

He remained at University of Oslo for his first postdoc position. He worked on 2D and 3D applications of human pluripotent stem cell derived hepatocytes, the chief functional cells of the liver. 

He received his doctoral degree exactly 28 years to the day after his father received his PhD.  “Watching my Dad and the influence he had on people when I was growing up, I knew I wanted to get involved in research,” said Dr. Siller.  “My goal is to one day become an independent scientist with my own lab.”

Diabetes Research in the Maehr Lab

The Maehr Lab in the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence is interested in how immune cells are trained by the thymus.  The thymus is the organ that educates our body’s immune system to defend against infection.  Immune cells are trained to move throughout our blood and tissue looking for foreign invaders, called microbes.  Immune cells are taught to launch an attack on bacteria, viruses and parasites to keep us healthy.

For some unknown reason, white cells called T lymphocytes or T cells, destroy the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas of people with Type 1 diabetes (T1D).  The Maehr Lab is developing functional thymic cells from human stem cells, that will be used to study the role the thymus plays in that autoimmune attack.  

Through developmental biology, the Maehr lab is studying how the thymus originates in the embryo.  Dr. Siller and his colleagues use human pluripotent stem cells to recreate the development and function of a human thymus to give them a better understanding of the organ.  One of the advantages of using pluripotent stem cells is that they constantly proliferate and renew to create an unlimited number of cells.  Also, they can also be used to study patient specific disorders to model diseases in the dish.  A potential benefit is the possibility of someday taking a person’s cells, repair and multiply them and replace them back into the patient as a therapeutic approach to disorders. Meanwhile, the human cells can be engrafted into the unique “humanized” mouse models being developed and used for study in the Brehm & Greiner labs, to study immune development, interaction and defects.

About Dr. Siller

Dr. Siller is an avid reader of science fiction and magical realist literature, particularly in Spanish.  Having spent a year studying abroad in Seville, Spain, he’s fluent in Spanish and enjoys speaking, reading, and interacting in Spanish. 

He loves to travel.  Living abroad got him interested in experiencing other cultures and trying new and exciting foods.  In his spare time, Dr. Siller enjoys cooking and baking bread.  “I’ve been using my cell culture experience to nurture a lovely sourdough starter to make fresh bread at least once a week.” 

The Colorado native misses the mountains, “but having the ocean nearby is a real treat,” he said.  “Especially after living in Europe for many years and always being close to the sea.”

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