March 23, 2023

Saunders receives diabetes research innovation award

Vanderbilt’s Diane Saunders, PhD, has been selected as a 2023 recipient of an Innovation Award by the Network of Pancreatic Donors with Diabetes.

Diane Saunders, PhD

by Jill Clendening

Diane Saunders, PhD, research assistant professor in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism in the Department of Medicine, has been selected as a 2023 recipient of an Innovation Award by the Network of Pancreatic Donors with Diabetes (nPOD) at its recent 2023 annual meeting.

The award is presented annually to recognize individuals or teams who have contributed significantly to Type 1 diabetes research by way of an innovative, experimental approach. In Saunders’ case, her work as co-scientific director of Pancreatlas, a publicly available database of images of the human pancreas, and her research applying new multiplex imaging approaches to studies of the human pancreas were the primary factors in her selection, said Mingder Yang, PhD, director of the nPOD Administrative Core.

The nPOD program at the University of Florida is supported by JDRF and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and is the world’s largest open research consortium dedicated to the study of the human pancreas. With nearly $3 million in annual program funding, nPOD researchers are conducting more than 150 studies that seek to unlock the mysteries of Type 1 diabetes.

Saunders’ research focuses on the development of the human pancreas, specifically how endocrine cell populations interact with vascular and immune cells in the islet microenvironment. She is involved in several research consortia, including the Human BioMolecular Atlas Project, the Human Pancreas Analysis Program, the Human Islet Research Network and the Human Cell Atlas.

All of these research consortia aim to characterize the human pancreas and other organs at a single-cell level. A better understanding of the healthy pancreas gained through this research will aid in developing therapies for diabetes and other diseases.

In her role as co-scientific director of Pancreatlas, Saunders partners with researchers to review and prepare imaging data collections for publication, ensuring all images and metadata meet quality standards.

She also leads imaging and image analysis offerings within the Islet and Pancreas Analysis Core supported by the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center with specific expertise in multiplexed immunofluorescence imaging.

“I am honored to be recognized by my colleagues with nPOD’s Innovation Award,” Saunders said. “Since each one of the organs we study unfortunately represents a family’s tragedy, it is our responsibility as researchers to gain as much information from them as possible. I feel privileged to have trained with mentors who model this accountability. I am also grateful to be part of research programs that allow me to pursue meaningful projects like Pancreatlas.”

Saunders received her undergraduate degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and earned her PhD in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics from Vanderbilt University. She joined the Powers and Brissova Research Group at Vanderbilt in 2014, where she completed graduate and postgraduate training before becoming a research assistant professor in 2022.

Limited access to the pancreas from living patients has traditionally prevented extensive investigations of the target organ and limited understanding of the causes and progression of Type 1 diabetes.

The nPOD was formed by the JDRF in 2007 to address this limitation by obtaining pancreas and other tissues from organ donors with diabetes.

Saunders has worked closely with members of the nPOD team since 2017, when investigators at the University of Florida and Vanderbilt initiated the Human Atlas of the Neonatal Development and Early Life Pancreas project, funded by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, to study islets and tissue from pediatric organ donors during the first decade of life. Profiling these nondiabetic samples complements samples in nPOD’s collection and provides important information about changes to the pancreas after birth.