In her lab—among the microscopes, test tubes, and reams of reports—Lydia Aguilar-Bryan, M.D., imagines a world free of diabetes, a disease that has struck at the heart of her family and her community.
A renowned researcher with the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute in Seattle, Aguilar-Bryan’s work has the potential to revolutionize medical treatment of type 1 diabetes (the kind usually diagnosed in children and young adults) and prevent type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
A medical doctor by training, Aguilar-Bryan saw loved ones struggle to cope with diabetes—a close-up view that compels her groundbreaking research.
The need for continuing research is clear. More than 20.8 million Americans—7 percent of the population—have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. And Hispanic and older Americans are particularly at risk. Worldwide, the number of diabetics tops 180 million, a figure the World Health Organization estimates will more than double by the year 2030.
A Personal Quest
Aguilar-Bryan didn’t set out to become a prominent researcher—but she was precocious. At age 4, she announced to her family that she would become a doctor. Her mission, she decided then, would be to heal others.
“I have always had a very clear vision of what I want to do and when I want to do it,” says Aguilar-Bryan, 57, born in Mexico City to a Russian American mother and a Mexican father.
That vision has served her well. And it seems Cupid—and fate—conspired to place the young doctor on the path to achieving a dramatic breakthrough in medical science.
Growing up in Mexico City, the little girl watched her paternal grandmother and one of her uncles die from diabetes. In 1979, as a young doctor interested in the genetic component of chronic disease, she left the Mexican capital for Starr County, Texas, on the Mexican border to conduct field work among a Mexican American community with a diabetes rate close to 35 percent. While there, she earned a doctorate at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston—and met Joseph Bryan, a molecular biologist 10 years her senior who worked at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Meeting Bryan would change the path Aguilar-Bryan had traced for herself. In 1985 the couple married and Aguilar-Bryan reset her course. She gave up her medical practice in Mexico and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor, joining Bryan in the lab and refocusing her energy on diabetes research.
Completing medical school at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México ranks among the proudest moments of Aguilar-Bryan’s life: “That was a goal that I set,” she underscores. Another highlight was the birth of her daughter Joanna, now 19 and a student at Walla Walla University in Washington state.
But it was in 1995, while at Baylor, that Lydia and Joe pulled off a feat that had stumped researchers the world over. After 10 years of painstaking trial and error, they isolated a protein in the pancreas that controls the process of insulin secretion and subsequently identified the location of the gene on chromosome 11, which produces insulin.
The discovery marked a turning point in the understanding and treatment of diabetes. “It was very, very important because until you can do something like that with a protein, it becomes almost impossible to know what is going on,” Aguilar-Bryan says.