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An Ambitious ADA Program to Address Two of the Greatest Threats in Diabetes Research

Published: 1/9/15
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By Emily Regier and Mitchell Huang

Twitter summary: @AmDiabetesAssn Pathway Award funds 5 young innovative #diabetes scientists, our interview with the awardees

In 2012, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) established an ambitious program to address two of the most pressing issues in diabetes research: insufficient funding and a shortage of young scientists interested in pursuing a career in diabetes. The Pathway to Stop Diabetes initiative awards research grants of up to $1.625 million (paid over five years) to young scientists who are committed to working on innovative “breakthrough” projects in diabetes, with the extraordinary goal to fund 100 researchers over the next 10 years.

In what is a major plus for young researchers, the program also offers awardees extensive mentorship opportunities, allowing them to develop relationships with prominent diabetes experts who have volunteered to serve as mentors. 

The Pathway program is largely the brainchild of Dr. Karen Talmadge, (Chair of the Board and Vice Chair, Research Foundation of the ADA), who helped identify the rising need to bring scientists into diabetes research early in their careers, as well as to find established researchers in other fields to commit to diabetes. 

On January 9, 2014, the ADA announced its first class of awardees of five researchers – the second class was just announced on January 6! We recently interviewed these first five recipients:

2014 AWARDEES:

Dr. Michael Dennis, PhD (Pennsylvania State University): Dr. Dennis received an award for his research on how high blood sugar leads to the development of diabetic retinopathy.

Dr. Stephen Parker, PhD (University of Michigan): Dr. Parker received an award for his work on identifying new factors that influence genetic susceptibility to type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Kathleen Page, MD (University of Southern California): The goal of Dr. Page’s research is to understand the link between diabetes exposure during pregnancy and an elevated risk of diabetes and obesity later in life.

Dr. Joshua Thaler, MD, PhD (University of Washington): Dr. Thaler’s research targets central nervous system pathways that contribute to diabetes and obesity.

Dr. Wolfgang Peti, PhD (Brown University): Dr. Peti received an award for his work investigating proteins that regulate insulin and energy storage.

OUR INTERVIEW WITH THE 2014 AWARDEES:

DIABETES RESEARCH

Q: How can we motivate more young people to become engaged in diabetes/endocrinology?

Dr. Thaler: If you build it, they will come. There’s no lack of creative people. I don’t think people view diabetes research as a backwater that isn’t cool or interesting enough. And lots of labs around the world do interesting science in metabolism, diabetes, and obesity. All of the hottest, latest techniques apply to this area of study, so it’s not an issue of awareness…I think it really comes down to whether there are paid positions and an opportunity to make a career. Money makes the world go round, and we need to raise more money from donors, from industry, and expand budgets.

Dr. Peti: Nearly everybody knows somebody with diabetes – so this should be readily possible. The problem is that biological research and medicine have allowed diabetes patients to live a “relatively normal life.” This is a huge achievement, but it also masks the importance of the issue at hand – that we need to get better medicines and find cures. I think more and more young people are realizing this and are interested in understanding the biology of diabetes.

Q: What do you think is the biggest difficulty in diabetes research?

Dr. Thaler: In terms of obstacles in diabetes research (not in diabetes care), funding is always the limiting step. There are creative ideas out there, so there’s no real issue with lack of innovation – we are moving forward. As an example, diabetes has had lots of new categories of drugs emerge in recent years. I think the only other areas of study that have moved as quickly are HIV and rheumatology. Most other fields don’t do that. So from that perspective, things look pretty good. But if you want a big breakthrough, you have to put money down.

Dr. Page: Type 2 diabetes is a complicated disease process that impacts multiple organ systems. Diabetes research requires expertise in multiple disciplines, so I think trying to find treatments and methods of prevention will require a strong team of exceptional scientists with complementary backgrounds and expertise.

Dr. Dennis: Diabetes funding certainly plays a major role in limiting innovation.  Relative to the number of Americans affected, the NIH spends significantly less on diabetes research as compared to cancer or HIV/AIDS ($35 vs. $394 or $2,524/person, respectively).

Q: What areas of diabetes research do you think have the most unanswered questions or the greatest potential for new discoveries?

Dr. Page: The role of the brain in the regulation of glucose and energy is a relatively new research area. New technologies allow us to address many unanswered questions about the neural mechanisms involved in glucose regulation and the development of diabetes. Thus, this research area offers unparalleled potential for new discovery.

Dr. Parker: There are nearly 100 different regions of the human genome that have a genetic link to type 2 diabetes. For the vast majority of these, we have no idea what the target gene is. So, uncovering these genes could lead to new treatments.

Dr. Dennis: Hyperglycemia is the initiating cause of diabetic tissue damage, yet much remains unknown about this effect. 

THE ADA PATHWAY PROGRAM

Q: How did you feel when you found out about the award?

Dr. Thaler: I was overjoyed. It’s not winning a Nobel Prize, but my thought was “are you sure you got the right person?”

Dr. Dennis: To be honest, I was shocked.  It is such a huge honor to be selected by the review committee to receive the award.  As a young scientist, funding is tough and to get this opportunity means everything for my research.

Dr. Peti: I was extraordinarily excited – more than I ever have been before. My first reaction was to “high five” my facility manager who shares my office and then I hugged my wife, who has a laboratory a few doors away. What a celebration – just a few days before the holidays. Indeed, it is that grant that I am, by far, the most proud of receiving. It was especially exciting to me personally because I have been interested in diabetes for many years (my grandmother passed away due to complications of diabetes). However, I had no mechanism to make a clear and immediate impact in the field. This award is now allowing me to do that.

Q: Are there any aspects the ADA Pathway Program or your work that you feel are misunderstood or worthy of more attention?

Dr. Dennis: I think the program as a whole is not yet well known.  The award not only provides tremendous financial support, but also ongoing scientific and career mentorship for the duration of the grant from an assemblage of exceptional scientists that form the Mentor Advisory Committee.  Being in the inaugural class, I look forward to watching the program continue to grow.  The plan is to fund 100 researchers over the next 10 years

Dr. Peti: This is an exceptional program. Based on my own experiences and my interactions with other awardees, I am confident that these awards will transform the diabetes research landscape. I think that the general public does not realize how critical this grant is to the researchers that receive it. It is indeed a game-changer as it gives me the freedom to pursue new directions in diabetes research, something that is much more difficult to fund from NIH or other federal agencies.

Q: So far, what has the ADA Pathway award meant for you and your work?

Dr. Peti: The ADA Pathway award has been truly incredible for our work. Indeed, we already have new and extremely exciting results for some of our aims, and these results are further energizing us to move forward even more quickly. This big advantage of this grant is that it provides us with an incredible amount of flexibility and impact. It supports two exceptional coworkers (post-doctoral research scientists) in my laboratory and we are able to pursue these aims with much security and especially creativity for the next 4 years. The team this ADA award has allowed me to assemble is outstanding and I am very much looking forward to presenting our new data in the near future.

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