Dr. Lisa Cole Burnett Defends Thesis

Congratulations to Lisa Cole Burnett, Ph.D., who successfully defended her thesis on Prader Willi Syndrome (PWS), a rare genetic form of childhood obesity that can lead to endocrine dysfunction and cognitive impairment. Her thesis—that people with PWS lack expression of a cluster of genes passed down from the paternal copy of chromosome 15—could potentially shed insight and even help develop new therapies for more common forms of obesity, a major public health issue world-wide.

Dr. Cole Burnett worked under the joint supervision of stem cell and diabetes researcher Dieter Egli, PhD, and her mentor, Rudy Leibel, MD, Berrie Center Co-Director and Christopher J. Murphy Professor of Diabetes Research. Said Dr. Leibel: “Lisa worked on a very interesting and challenging problem. She was trying to define the precise molecular basis for the PWS, a rare but very severe form of obesity. She used mice and stem cells in a coordinated approach to the solution. Her work should contribute to novel clinical approaches to obesity.”

Dr. Cole Burnett’s research received high praise when she was a graduate student for being among the first to apply stem-cell technology to the study of PWS. Stem cell technology is a particularly effective method for studying PWS because it allows researchers to generate cell types—and then create a model of ‘the disease in a dish.’ She then followed up on the results gleaned from the stem cell model in vivo using a PWS mouse model.

Dr. Cole Burnett is following up on the findings of her thesis work as a postdoctoral research scientist with Dr. Leibel. “Our goal,” said Dr. Cole Burnett, “is to compare the hypothalamic neurons that we generate from our PWS patients with neurons from people who are unaffected. We’re looking at how these neurons differ in PWS to better understand the underlying mechanism causing obesity in these patients.”

Lisa Cole Burnett was a doctoral student at Columbia’s Institute of Human Nutrition with an interest in studying obesity when she contacted Dr. Leibel about working in his lab. Soon after her arrival to the lab, Dr. Leibel and Dr. Cole Burnett submitted a grant application to the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research that was successfully funded. The Foundation for Prader-Willi Research has been a major supporter of Dr. Leibel and Dr. Cole Burnett’s PWS stem cell work for the past five years.