Health Equity

May 23, 2023

Diabetes Day celebrates 50 years of achievement, spotlights current investigations

Vanderbilt Diabetes Day, an annual event hosted by the now-named Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center (DRTC). The event spotlights the work of researchers, and this year also celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the DRTC.

Fifty years ago, Brian Smith of Huntsville, Alabama, and his parents Mary and Ralph had their photo taken at the opening ceremony for the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research Center. Smith, who has diabetes, and his family helped highlight the need for the newly opened National Institutes of Health-funded center – the first of its kind in the United States.

Smith and his mother recently returned to Vanderbilt as honored guests at Diabetes Day, an annual event hosted by the now-named Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center (DRTC). The event spotlights the work of researchers, and this year also celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the DRTC.

Consuelo H. Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and Alvin C. Powers, MD, director of the Vanderbilt DRTC at the Annual Diabetes Day. (Photo by: Susan Urmy)

When Smith was the 3-year-old in the black-and-white newspaper photo, his mother had to continually test his urine for glucose. Now, he keeps an eye on his blood glucose levels using a continuous glucose monitor and has insulin delivered by an insulin pump – both inconspicuous devices he wears. Expressing gratitude for the scientific advances which have made his life with diabetes easier, he added he was “blessed to be there to be a part of such great history.”

In 1973, the Vanderbilt DRTC began its mission to facilitate the discovery, application and translation of scientific knowledge to improve the lives of people with diabetes. Diabetes Research Centers (DRCs) improve the quality and multidisciplinary nature of research on diabetes and related endocrinology and metabolism research by providing shared access to technical resources and expertise and by creating an environment that supports innovative research.

In his introductory remarks, DRTC Director Alvin Powers, MD, shared how efforts by Vanderbilt’s Oscar Crofford, MD, were critical in the formation of the national NIH Diabetes Research Center program. Crofford testified before Congress about the need for diabetes research and education, then organized and led Vanderbilt’s grant application. Vanderbilt was chosen as the first center to be funded by the NIH, with Crofford as its director.

“These initial efforts were greatly enhanced by Vanderbilt’s strong basic science programs in physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology and outstanding investigators in endocrinology and pediatrics,” Powers said.

Daryl Granner, MD, who followed Crofford as director, gave remarks remotely at Diabetes Day, emphasizing how the Center helped scientists and physicians work together to make important scientific advances.

Today, the Vanderbilt DTRC includes 140 faculty members from 15 departments and three colleges or schools at Vanderbilt and Meharry Medical College who conduct basic, clinical and translational research on the cause, prevention, treatment and complications of diabetes and obesity.

Like the initial ceremony in 1973, the Dean of the School of Medicine and the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University were present at this year’s event. Jeffrey Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, described Vanderbilt’s commitment to improving the lives of individuals with diabetes, especially as diabetes is so common in this region of the United States. Balser also mentioned how Vanderbilt’s efforts related to diabetes care were enhanced by the establishment of the Irwin Eskind Diabetes Clinic.

Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, PhD, said the Vanderbilt DRTC was a perfect example of the unique collaborative environment between Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and remarked on how the DRTC’s 50th anniversary coincided with Vanderbilt University’s 150th anniversary this year.

“This is just a wonderful model of how we want to work together and the impact we can have,” Diermeier said. “Of course, it also advances the mission of training and educating the next generation of scholars and leaders on the frontiers of diabetes research and clinical practice. In all, if anyone wonders how Vanderbilt stands apart from other institutions and wonders how we’re making a difference and leading the way in this century, we can simply point to the DRTC and say, ‘This is the Vanderbilt way of work. This is how we move society forward. This is how we’re improving lives in our community and around the world.’”

In honor of the Vanderbilt DRTC’s 50 years of research and innovation, several NIDDK leaders traveled from NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, to take part in the celebration and scientific exchanges. They included NIDDK Director Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP, who presented a plenary lecture; William Cefalu, MD, director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolic Disease; and Corinne Silva, PhD, program director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolic Disease.

“Our diabetes research centers have provided so much information that has benefited individual patients and populations with diabetes, both with respect to better diagnosis and treatment, and now, increasingly, with prevention of the disease,” Rodgers said. “Vanderbilt was the first diabetes research center funded, and for decades now they’ve led the way in terms of how to best proceed. I felt it was important for me to be here to share the history, where we are now and where we hope to evolve in the future. I’m sure Vanderbilt will be a center that is again leading the way forward.”

Griffin noted Vanderbilt’s role in the success of the NIDDK Medical Student Research Program in Diabetes and Obesity which brings medical students from throughout the country to diabetes research centers to conduct mentored research. The summer program, led by John Stafford, MD, PhD, at Vanderbilt, culminates in the students convening at Vanderbilt for a research symposium to present their work.

“This program, again with Vanderbilt taking the lead, has really made the possibility of a future career in biomedical research attainable, particularly for people who are doing their medical school training at places that might not be as research intensive.”

C. Ronald Kahn, MD, head of the Section on Physiology and Metabolism at Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard Medical School, gave the plenary lecture on the progress made over the last half decade in understanding the action of insulin and insulin resistance. Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Senior Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Health Equity and Inclusive Excellence at VUMC, gave a plenary lecture on transforming precision medicine through engagement and equity.

A new presentation format during Diabetes Day was three Fulcrums of Discovery, designed by Sean Davis, PhD, director of DRTC Enrichment and the Diabetes Day planning committee. This approach combined an interview about past scientific accomplishments in the DRTC and a forward-looking presentation about metabolism, islet biology and translational research.

During the event, Jessica Kimber, program manager for the Vanderbilt DRTC, was recognized for her contributions. Four trainees were recognized with Diabetes Scholar Awards for their outstanding research efforts. They are:

  • Thao Le, who is pursuing her graduate and medical education through the Vanderbilt Medical Scientist Training Program. She works in the lab of Julio Ayala, PhD.
  • Fubiao Shi, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Sheila Collins, PhD.
  • Jaclyn Tamaroff, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
  • Nathan Winn, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Alyssa Hasty, PhD.

Diabetes Day was sponsored by the Vanderbilt DRTC and supported by the NIDDK and the Irwin B. Eskind Endowed Symposium Fund.