Married Diabetes Researchers to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award

Gordon Weir and Susan Bonner-Weir will be honored at Joslin's High Hopes Gala.


Gordon Weir and Susan Bonner-Weir/Photo provided

Gordon Weir and Susan Bonner-Weir, researchers at Joslin Diabetes Center, are working on treating diabetes from the inside out—together.

The married couple, who have been together for nearly 50 years, will be honored with the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award at Joslin’s High Hopes Gala on Saturday, for their work toward curing diabetes.

The Weirs’ research focuses on beta cells, which are found in the pancreas and make insulin. For patients with type 2 diabetes, beta cells don’t produce enough insulin. For patients with type 1 diabetes, which is considered an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks the beta cells.

The idea, the Weirs say, is to find a way to replace or regenerate beta cells in patients with diabetes.

“If you could replace the beta cells for people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you could reverse those high blood sugars,” Weir says. That’s important, because high blood sugar has been linked to blindness, kidney failure, limb loss, and nerve damage.

Bonner-Weir says the duo has been learning about how beta cells work to better understand how to manipulate them. Her team has focused on turning a non-beta cell into a beta cell. In one experiment, they took non-beta cells from the pancreas, and were able to turn them into beta cells in a petri dish.

In type 1 diabetes, Weir says, making new beta cells is not the main issue—instead, it’s the obstacle of autoimmunity, and the body killing its new beta cells. He says autoimmune diabetes has been reversed with drugs in mouse models, but that result has been more difficult to replicate in humans.

Autoimmune attacks aren’t a threat in type 2 diabetes, however, which means there are two ways to fix the beta cell issue: regeneration, or replacement via transplantation. One issue with replacement therapy is figuring out how to keep beta cells safe from the immune system, Bonner-Weir says.

“How do you protect those cells but have them have enough oxygen and nutrients to survive and function properly?” she asks.

Weir, who studies this aspect of beta cells, says there is promising mouse research that suggests beta cells can be kept safe from the immune response.

“There’s every reason to be optimistic,” he says.

The Weirs’ fellow gala honorees will be sisters Clarissa and Sarah Peterson, two diabetes patients who created a “diabetes buddy club” for newly diagnosed friends.

High Hopes Gala, 11/19, 6 p.m. Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, 606 Congress St., Boston. Tickets start at $1,000. To register, visit