Scientist at heart

Schaffer tackles the complications of diabetes

“Two-thirds of people with diabetes die from cardiovascular disease,” says Jean E. Schaffer, M.D., the Virginia Minnich Distinguished Professor of Medicine.

Diabetes affects a quarter of a billion people worldwide. Obesity is a major factor in the development of diabetes, and about 400 million people around the world are obese.

Jean E. Schaffer, M.D. (left), and Rita Brookheart, a doctoral student in molecular cell biology, look at gels. “Jean has all of the attributes I associate with the very top research scientists,” says Harvey Lodish, Ph.D., professor of biology and of bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The breadth and depth of her knowledge of the molecular and cellular underpinnings of cardiovascular disease are astounding, and she has the rare ability to explain complex medical issues.”

These facts are compelling for Schaffer, a cardiologist with a strong scientific bent. She investigates how diabetes and other metabolic problems lead to complications such as heart attacks, strokes, atherosclerosis and peripheral artery disease.

“If we, as physicians and scientists, understood better how diabetes or obesity predisposes people to cardiovascular complications, we could have a huge impact on human health,” Schaffer says.

She made her first step toward that goal as a research fellow when she identified a protein that pulled fat molecules into cells. That helped change the understanding of how fat is controlled and metabolized in the body.

Her work has progressed from that promising start to her current projects, which grapple with the harmful effects of excessive fat uptake by heart muscle cells and other tissues that occurs with diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

“Dr. Schaffer has begun to move her basic science discoveries into the clinic,” says Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and head of the Milliken Department of Medicine.

“Her goal is to develop more effective ways of diagnosing and preventing early diabetic heart disease before it reaches an advanced stage, which cannot be easily treated,” he says. “If this research is as successful as her basic research has been, we can look forward to a number of important advances that will benefit patients.”

Finding fun in science

Although Schaffer investigates a serious and potentially deadly health problem, it’s clear that she very much enjoys her job. She projects a tremendous enthusiasm for science and research — even for the occasional dead ends, U-turns and detours along the way.

The prolific science-fiction and popular-science writer Isaac Asimov once wrote, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …'”

Schaffer echoes that sentiment. “While you design experiments to test hypotheses, you don’t truly know what the answer will be,” she says. “That’s what’s so much fun about what we do — the possibility that research will head in a totally unanticipated direction.”

(From left) Daniel S. Ory, M.D.; Jean E. Schaffer, M.D.; son, Benjamin, 16; and daughter, Sara, 11.

Schaffer’s first laboratory experience was as an undergraduate student at Harvard University in the lab of Matthew Meselson, Ph.D., the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences and a pioneer in DNA chemistry and structure. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Schaffer went to medical school at Harvard to learn more about human physiology and disease, knowing that she would return to basic science afterwards.

She completed her residency and a cardiology fellowship at Harvard and then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to conduct research with Harvey Lodish, Ph.D., professor of biology and of bioengineering and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. His ongoing research sheds light on the health consequences of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Her cardiology training sparked her interest in research that ultimately helped explain, for the first time, how the heart acquires enough fatty acids to meet its tremendous energy demands.

“Harvey was very supportive of my idea to start a new project looking at how fatty acids are transported into heart muscle cells and into fat cells,” Schaffer says. “At that time, transport of fats was poorly understood.”

That work led to Schaffer winning the Heinrich Wieland Prize in 1995, just after coming to the School of Medicine as assistant professor. Schaffer was the youngest person to have received the award, which recognized her work in discovering a gene involved in fatty acid uptake.

“Jean has all of the attributes I associate with the very top research scientists,” Lodish says. “The breadth and depth of her knowledge of the molecular and cellular underpinnings of cardiovascular disease are astounding, and she has the rare ability to explain complex medical issues.”

In 2006, Schaffer won a Clinical Scientists Award in Translational Research from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a five-year award given to only about 10 researchers each year.

“What we learn from studying cardiovascular complications may have bearing on how we understand complications in other organs, such as the kidneys and eyes,” Schaffer says.

“We are also working to identify new biomarkers that will help us diagnose earlier and more effectively treat people with diabetes,” she says. “Such biomarkers can also lead us to new ideas about preventing the complications of diabetes and other metabolic disorders.”

Jean E. Schaffer

Titles: The Virginia Minnich Distinguished Professor of Medicine; director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Diabetic Cardiovascular Disease; co-director, Medical Scientist Training Program; and associate director, Diabetes Research Training Center, which supports investigators conducting diabetes- and metabolism-related research at the School of Medicine

Family: Husband, Daniel S. Ory, M.D.; son, Benjamin, 16; and daughter, Sara, 11. Although Schaffer’s parents, now retired, were business people, all three of their children are physicians. Schaffer’s brother is an orthopedic surgeon, and her sister is a pediatrician.

Hobbies: Schaffer studied piano until she started medical school and now plays for enjoyment. The family loves to go to Powell Symphony Hall to hear the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Schaffer also enjoys gardening, and the windows of her office are lined with potted plants. Her parents are master gardeners who passed on some of their prized dahlias.

A team effort

Schaffer’s husband, Daniel S. Ory, M.D., professor of medicine and of cell biology and physiology, came to the School of Medicine at the same time as she. The two met in their undergraduate chemistry class at Harvard, where, Schaffer says, Ory convinced her she needed help with her chemistry homework.

Later, the pair went through medical school together, marrying during their second year. Now, they have side-by-side labs.

“We’ve chosen to run our two laboratories as a larger group with a broader research focus on the cell biology of lipid metabolism,” Schaffer says. “There’s a lot of collaboration between us and among our students and postdocs. It’s been very productive.”

Both the Schaffer and Ory labs will move to the BJC Institute of Health at Washington University when it is completed in December 2009 — because, as Schaffer says, their labs share so many “toys.”

The new building will house the interdisciplinary research centers of BioMed 21, and Schaffer and Ory direct one of those centers, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Diabetic Cardiovascular Disease.

Schaffer and Ory have two children, and, when graduate students and trainees wonder how they will be able to fit family with career, Schaffer tells them, “If you want children and you decide it’s the right time, you make it work. Being happy and fulfilled in your personal life helps you to excel at your work.”

Polonsky says Schaffer seems to be able to do it all with great skill and class: “The way in which she has succeeded in balancing multiple roles — scientist, mentor, mother and spouse — is most impressive.”

Looking to the future

Schaffer is co-director of the Medical Scientist Training Program, which integrates elements of both medical school and graduate school — students in the program earn a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree.

Interacting with and training talented young people is another aspect of her work Schaffer loves, and her lab always has a dozen or so graduate students and postdoctoral trainees.

“The flow of knowledge isn’t just from me to the student,” Schaffer says. “Often it’s the trainee who comes up with the ‘Aha!’ moment. I’m thrilled that there are young people coming along who want to carry this kind of work forward.”

Lodish says that Schaffer is a sought-after teacher and mentor for undergraduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty.

“Given that she is such an outstanding role model, I am not surprised that many of her trainees have been young women who have progressed successfully in their own careers,” he says.

Looking to the future, Schaffer says that she’ll go wherever the science takes her.

“Biological mechanisms are likely to be fundamental in more than one disease,” she says.

“I like to think that what we are finding in our area could translate into improving health for people with other common conditions. I really get excited about the possibility that what we discover will help us diagnose, treat and prevent disease,” she says.