UMass Medical School establishes term chairs to support junior faculty

Gifts from George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation, Glass Charitable Foundation provide five-year funding to three diabetes researchers

By Lisa M. Larson

UMass Medical School Communications

June 29, 2015
  (L-R) Michael Brehm, PhD; Rene Maehr, PhD; and Laura Alonso, MD
  (L-R) Michael Brehm, PhD; Rene Maehr, PhD; and Laura Alonso, MD.

A creative new approach to  support promising scientists early in their careers is taking shape at UMass Medical School, where gifts from The George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation and The Glass Charitable Foundation are being used to establish five-year term chairs for three junior faculty in diabetes research, announced Chancellor Michael F. Collins. The researchers will each receive $300,000 over five years to support their scientific work. 

“Resources for research are becoming increasingly competitive, even for established scientists with track records of innovation and discovery,” Chancellor Collins said. “We are determined to address these challenges. With the support of The George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation and The Glass Charitable Foundation, we are creating innovative tools to retain our top young talent. The prestige and recognition associated with being appointed to these term chairs also position the recipients well for future external funding opportunities.”

Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education, executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the School of Medicine, said the new term chairs align with the goal of UMMS to create funding mechanisms to invest in the promise of junior faculty members.

“One of the major strategic objectives in both the Medical School’s new joint strategic plan with clinical partner UMass Memorial Health Care and the UMass System’s Life Sciences Strategic Plan is recruiting and retaining talent, particularly outstanding junior and mid-career faculty,” Dr. Flotte said. “Our assistant and associate professors are essential to the Medical School’s research enterprise. The competition for such talent is intense and decreasing federal support for research is exacerbating this issue. We are proud to support Drs. Laura Alonso, Michael Brehm and Rene Maehr and know they will continue making meaningful discoveries with this support that furthers research into diabetes.” 

The George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation, a longtime benefactor of UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care, proposed the idea of term chairs as a way for its board to support important research without an endowment, said Mark W. Fuller, chairman and treasurer of the Fuller trustees. The foundation primarily supports capital projects; it does not support endowments. 

“Funding research is critical because we all understand that the numbers coming from the federal government are going down, so it’s harder and harder for scientists to get those dollars,” Fuller said. “We have supported UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care for many years; we want to support research, especially young researchers; and type I diabetes is prevalent in several of our trustees’ families. So, supporting a term chair for diabetes research makes a lot of sense for us. I also hope this is an option for other donors, particularly those who can’t fund an endowment but could make an annual contribution such as this.”

Scott Glass, of The Glass Charitable Foundation, said his organization decided to fund term chairs as a way to support groundbreaking research at UMass Medical School.

“The diabetes research being done at UMass Medical School has the potential to prevent or even cure type 1 diabetes,” Glass said. “That is what we hope to see in our lifetime. We need to fully understand the disease and how it develops.  If we can unlock that piece then we can move forward to a cure. The Glass Chairs will enable young investigators to continue to pursue that ultimate goal.” 

Laura Alonso, MD, associate professor of medicine, was named the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation Term Chair in Diabetes. Dr. Alonso is the director of Beta Cell Biological Studies in the Department of Medicine, where her lab is focused on finding ways to increase the number of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells in order to prevent or treat diabetes. She uses mouse models to determine how nutrients influence beta cell proliferation, with the goal of identifying therapeutic pathways that can potentially expand the number of human beta cells. 

“As an active clinician, Dr. Alonso has never taken her eye off the need for improved therapies for patients with diabetes,” said David M. Harlan, MD, the William and Doris Krupp Professor in Medicine, professor of medicine and co-director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence. “The scientific question she has pursued is an improved understanding of the biology underlying the growth of insulin producing beta cells. Toward that end, she has developed novel in vivo and in vitro model systems to explore factors that cause insulin producing beta cells to multiply in number and to thereby increase pancreatic insulin production.  Her work has far reaching implications for all patients with diabetes, type 1 or 2.”

Alonso was recruited to UMass Medical School from the University of Pittsburgh, where she launched her career after training at Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, University of Chicago and New York University.

Michael Brehm, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine, was named The Robert and Sandra Glass Term Chair in Diabetes. Dr. Brehm was recruited to the Diabetes Center of Excellence following a successful postdoctoral and junior faculty research career at UMass Medical School.  He was recently promoted to associate professor. 

“His innovative and revolutionary work on the development and use of mice engrafted with functional human cells and tissues has generated high interest in the biomedical research community, both nationally and internationally, for use as a preclinical model for the investigation of human diabetes, cancer, infectious disease, regenerative medicine and autoimmunity,” said Dale Greiner, PhD, the Dr. Eileen L. Berman and Stanley I. Berman Foundation Chair in Biomedical Research,  professor of molecular medicine and co-director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence. “He is using humanized mice to focus on autoimmune type 1 diabetes and the cells that regulate immune responses in humans.”

Rene Maehr, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine, was named The Glass Charitable Foundation Term Chair in Diabetes. Dr. Maehr was recruited to the Diabetes Center of Excellence following a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Douglas A. Melton, PhD, co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute.

“Dr. Maehr was instrumental in developing the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology that permits cells from individuals to be programmed to stem cells and then directed to develop into almost any cell or tissue in the body,” Dr. Greiner said. “He was the first to show that iPS cells from subjects with type 1 diabetes could generate human insulin-producing beta cells while in Dr. Melton’s laboratory, and is now working on the development of a human thymus from iPS cells, which would allow the re-education of an immune system as a treatment for autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes.”

The commitment to support young scientists is essential with the continuing decline in federal research funding, Dr. Harlan agreed.

“The impact of that decreased funding is particularly acute for the young investigator who has not yet had time to establish the productivity record so critical to successfully compete for limited research dollars,” he said. “Senior researchers around the world recognize that we risk losing an entire generation of younger investigators who may conclude the research path is closed to them.  And yet, history has shown that it is very often the young investigator driving major innovation. Sir Frederick Banting was only 31 years old when he and Charles Best first isolated insulin.

“The term chairs for our diabetes research young investigators will give these best and brightest young minds a career foothold from which they might establish their careers and, more important, pursue new ideas that may be the missing puzzle piece required to better treat or cure diabetes. 

Related links on UMassMedNow:
Telegram: UMMS looks beyond the NIH for biomedical research funding
UMMS develops new technology to study stem cells
Dr. Eileen L. Berman and Stanley I. Berman Foundation Chair in Biomedical Research established

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