University of Chicago’s Donald Steiner named 2009 recipient of major international diabetes prize

December 4, 2009

Donald F. Steiner, MD, the A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Prize for 2009, the foundation announced this week.

The prize, now two years old, is the largest for diabetes research. Inaugurated in 2008 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Foundation, it honors “those who have enlightened researchers in the field of diabetes around the world with their original and excellent scientific achievements.” It includes a certificate of honor, a Japanese objet d’art and $150,000.

“I am highly honored,” said Steiner. “It’s humbling to be recognized by my peers and gratifying to receive an award of this stature for my life’s work. I’m very grateful to my colleagues for the nomination, and to the Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Foundation for this distinction.”

Steiner, a 1956 graduate of the University of Chicago School of Medicine, will receive the prize and present a commemorative lecture at the award ceremony on March 2, 2010.

The prize Selection Committee cited Steiner’s outstanding achievements over many years of research. “He has greatly contributed to our increased understanding in the mechanism of insulin secretion and related disorders,” the Foundation noted in their news release.

Steiner’s best known contributions include:

  • In 1965, Steiner described how insulin is made from proinsulin, the first “pro-hormone”. He showed that insulin was produced as a single chain that was then cleaved to release the two-chain insulin molecule and a new peptide, the C-peptide. He also characterized the proinsulin processing pathway in the β cell.
  • Steiner and colleagues isolated the human C-peptide, determined its structure and then developed clinical applications of C-peptide. They produced the radioimmunoassay for C-peptide that is widely used today to measure endogenous insulin production.
  • He later identified, with Arthur Rubenstein and the late Howard S. Tager, several point mutations in the insulin gene associated with syndromes of mild diabetes and elevated circulating insulin, known as Insulins Chicago, Los Angeles and Wakayama.

Steiner’s contributions to understanding the biochemical nature of insulin production and the development of C-peptide measurement have had profound clinical implications. His work led to major improvements in purity and reduced immunogenicity of therapeutic insulin and ultimately to the development, via proinsulin, of recombinant human insulin for diabetes therapy. The human C-peptide assay has enhanced the diagnosis of insulin-secreting tumors of the pancreas and the evaluation of the success of islet transplants.

His discovery of proinsulin also paved the way to understanding how many other peptide hormones and neuropeptides in the brain and endocrine system are made and similarly processed to active peptide hormones and/or neurotransmitters.

The discovery of proinsulin was “a landmark,” said Steiner’s colleague, Graeme Bell, PhD, Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor at the University and an authority on the genetics of diabetes. “As the first prohormone, it launched inquiry into how secretory proteins are manufactured and processed in cells. It was also a key finding for the manufacture of synthetic human insulin used therapeutically today. Steiner’s studies have had a profound and fundamental impact on the understanding of human health, disease and diabetes in particular.”

The Manpei Suzuki Diabetes Foundation promotes research in the field of diabetology by encouraging young researchers through international contacts. The Foundation aims further science and technology and the improvement of the health and welfare of all people.

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