November 17, 2000

Davis wins Novartis award

Featured Image

Davis wins Novartis award

What started as a bedside consult became a scientific hypothesis and several years of research that recently garnered an international award for its principal investigator.

Stephen N. Davis, Ph.D., Rudolph Kampmeier Professor of Medicine and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and chief of the division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, has won the 2000 Novartis Young Investigator Award for patient-oriented research in diabetes mellitus.

The award recognizes Davis and his team’s discovery that the hormone cortisol blunts the body’s natural regulating response during bouts of hypoglycemia.

Five years ago, Davis was called in to consult on a heart transplant patient who had developed diabetes.

“The patient was on high doses of steroids in order to prevent rejection of his new heart,” Davis recalled. “We had therefore done something (in the normal course of cardiac management) to prevent his body’s ability to defend against low blood glucose.”

The autonomic nervous system helps stimulate the making of blood glucose to protect the body when blood glucose drops dangerously low. But the heart transplant patient had developed hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure and did not recognize when his blood glucose was going low, Davis said.

Davis took the idea that the steroids the heart transplant patient were receiving had induced the problem, and he turned it into a controlled study to pinpoint the culprit. Hypoglycemia was induced in diabetics and non-diabetics, and steroid levels were closely monitored. Cortisol, they found, inhibited autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine responses that produce glucose and protect against hypoglycemia.

“Tiny amounts of cortisol were enough to cause full-scale blunting of defenses against hypoglycemia,” Davis said. The team’s next step is to determine how to specifically block cortisol’s action on blunting responses to hypoglycemia without hampering all the normal functions of this important hormone.

And although the Novartis plaque hangs on Davis’ office wall, he prefers to share the credit with other key players.

“It’s really an award for the Diabetes Center and the Clinical Research Center,” Davis said. “The work includes collaboration across the Medical Center.” Collaborating with Davis were: Dr. David Robertson, professor of Medicine, Neurology and Pharmacology and director of the Clinical Research Center; Dr. Daryl Granner, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics; and Alan Cherrington, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics.