After 48 years of marriage, Susan Bonner-Weir and Dr. Gordon Weir finish each other’s sentences. They also help finish each other’s scientific papers: They’ve coauthored over 150. Now the couple, both researchers at Joslin Diabetes Center, are set to receive Joslin’s 2016 Global Achievement Award. I caught up with them in Bonner-Weir’s office, decorated with colorful printouts of pancreas cells.
How did you meet?
It was 1967 in Cleveland. He was a doctor on an internship. She was getting her PhD. They were each set up with someone else on a double date — but ended up liking one another more. “We stirred things around,” and within a year, they were married, Weir said.
What do you study?
“We’re both very consumed with the concept that diabetes is a solvable problem,” if you just replace a patient’s beta cells — the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, Weir said. “It’s basically a very simple disease. You get diabetes because you don’t have enough beta cells.” Weir has worked on encapsulating donated beta cells so the recipient’s body doesn’t reject them. Now he’s trying to set up a cell transplantation center at Joslin. Bonner-Weir has focused on how beta cells change over time, and how they might be derived from other types of cells.
Your best ‘Eureka’ moment?
When a human pancreas is donated for islet transplantation, most of it gets tossed out, except for the islets, which contain insulin-producing beta cells. Bonner-Weir salvaged some of the discarded cells, called duct cells. She put them in a culture, grew them, and manipulated their environment, and found, aha: Little buds of islet tissue were growing out of the spheres of duct cells — and they were producing insulin. “You’ve got to come up and see this!” a colleague told Weir. He rushed up and took a look. “That was very exciting,” he said. It was the first time anyone had gotten human duct cells in a lab to make new beta cells — offering a potential new supply source for diabetics.
What’s been your most fun collaboration?
“Our kids,” said Bonner-Weir. One is a journalist. The other is a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital, across the street from their lab.