Schaffer works for practical applications of diabetes research


By her own admission, Dr. Jean Schaffer wears a lot of hats. She dons many of them in the service of translating scientific advances into tangible improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes.

“And prevention — let’s not leave out prevention,” says Schaffer. “For people with diabetes, cardiovascular disease is a major health issue. Two-thirds of people with diabetes develop cardiovascular disease, and we don’t understand what it is about metabolic disease that precipitates heart problems.”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Individuals with diabetes also develop atherosclerosis (the blockages that lead to heart attacks), and diabetes affects heart muscle function, which leads to heart failure. “We need to understand how cells in the heart respond to metabolic stress,” Schaffer says, “and then we need to use what we learn to develop better tools for diagnosing those at highest risk.”

Schaffer, 49, grew up in Cleveland. In 1982, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in biochemistry, and earned her medical degree cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1986. She went on to a residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and cardiology training at Beth Israel Hospital at Harvard.

Schaffer’s postdoctora l training in cell biology took place with Harvey Lodish, Ph.D., at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine in 1995.

In spite of her passion for her work, Schaffer willingly hung up her researcher hat, her teacher hat and her physician hat recently to answer questions about her research.

As a researcher, where does your primary interest lie?

I am interested to know how high levels of fat in the blood contribute to heart disease. Our work has provided new insights into how cells respond to this type of metabolic stress and we have developed animal models in which to validate our findings. We are now trying to understand the link between high fats in the blood and heart muscle dysfunction –especially the early, subtle aspects — in people.

What do you expect to find as you look for that link?

We predict that individuals with the highest levels of triglycerides — a type of fat — in the blood will be most likely to have heart failure. Furthermore, treatments to decrease these fats may improve heart muscle function.

What else have you found that you did not expect?

With the completion of the Human Genome Sequencing Project, scientists were surprised at the relatively small number of human genes and the large amount of genetic material that did not appear at first to have functions. In the last few years we have begun to understand that this “extra” genetic material plays an important role in regulating our genes. My own lab’s work is now beginning to uncover ways in which these regulatory regions modify how we respond to metabolic stresses like high fats.

What comes next?

We don’t yet know if lowering the level of fats like triglycerides has an impact on heart muscle dysfunction or atherosclerosis, but this is an important avenue for investigation. If this has benefit, we will need to develop more accurate ways to reliably measure these types of fats and new treatments to lower their levels.

What led you to choose this career?

I liked science early on, especially biochemistry. I realized that if I really wanted to learn how the body works, I needed to go to medical school.

What area captivated you as a medical student?

I enjoyed investigation, and I became interested in cell biology and metabolism. After medical school, I spent five years working with Dr. Harvey Lodish, a cell biologist. I waded knee deep into the problem of how cells handle fats, and I’ve never looked back.

The last two decades have seen a dramatic increase in obesity and diabetes. What do you think is to blame?

We can say almost certainly that the uptick cannot be explained just by genetics alone. It’s likely that aspects of our environment — such as the composition of our diets – are also conferring increased risk for obesity and diabetes.

So it’s not just that we ingest too many calories?

Changes in the types of calories may be playing an important role. Today we have different kinds of carbohydrates and fats in highly processed foods that were not in our grandparents’ diets. We need to think about what we have introduced into modern diets that may predispose us to develop these health problems.

Which hat will you put on next?

We belong to Temple Israel, and I need to plan my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah for next March. That will be a wonderful opportunity to bring our families together here and to enjoy being with each other.

AT A GLANCE: Jean Schaffer, M.D.

WORK: Professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, director of the Diabetes Research Training Center, director of the Interdisciplinary Research Center for the Study of Diabetic Cardiovascular Disease, attending physician in the Cardiac Diagnostic Laboratory at the School of Medicine and a physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital

FAMILY: Married to Dr. Daniel Ory, who also is a professor at Washington University School of Medicine and research collaborator; two children, Benjamin, 17, and Sara, 12

HOBBIES: Classical music, attending the St. Louis Symphony, gardening

PROFESSIONAL HIGHLIGHTS: In 2006, Schaffer received the Burroughs Wellcome Clinical Scientist Award in Translational Research. In 1995, she was awarded the Heinrich Wieland Prize for lipid research and in 1993, Schaffer received the American Heart Association’s Louis N. Katz Basic Science Research Prize.