by Jill Clendening
The Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center (DRTC) is celebrating its 49th year of continual operation with the five-year competitive renewal of a $10.9 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The interdisciplinary center’s mission is to facilitate the discovery, application and translation of scientific knowledge to improve the lives of people with diabetes. The DRTC includes 142 faculty members from 15 departments at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College who conduct basic, clinical and translational research on the causes, prevention, treatment and complications of diabetes and obesity. Of the DRTC-affiliated investigators, more than 30% have joined the center since the prior grant submission in 2016, with 21% of DRTC investigators being junior investigators.
“This renewal reflects the sustained quality and contributions of many diabetes, obesity and metabolism-related investigators at Vanderbilt, our efforts to support learners and trainees at all career levels as well as the extremely strong institutional support at Vanderbilt,” said DRTC director Alvin Powers, MD. “The nearly five decades of uninterrupted NIH funding has propelled Vanderbilt’s efforts to improve the understanding of the causes of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and to develop and apply new therapies and approaches for the prevention and treatment of diabetes.”
Nancy Cox, PhD, Owen McGuinness, PhD, and John Stafford, MD, PhD, are associate directors of the DRTC.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37.3 million Americans — about one in 10 — have diabetes. An estimated 96 million American adults — more than one in three — have prediabetes, or a health condition that increases a person’s risk of Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Without major interventions, the CDC predicts that as many as one in three adults in the United States could have diabetes by 2050.
The Vanderbilt DRTC, one of 16 NIDDK-designated Diabetes Research Centers in the United States, includes five primary components: a biomedical research group of investigators; research cores that facilitate and enhance diabetes research; a pilot and feasibility program that supports the development of new investigators into independent scientists and encourages scientists in other fields to pursue diabetes-related research; an enrichment and outreach program that fosters collaborative research and facilitates training; and support for the administration of the NIDDK medical student research program that promotes research training for approximately 100 medical students from around the country each summer.
The research of the center’s investigators is currently supported by $78 million in research funding with six affiliated diabetes-related training grants supporting graduate and postdoctoral fellow training efforts. In the more than 540 diabetes-related publications involving DRTC faculty from 2016-2021, more than half included contributions from more than one Vanderbilt DRTC member.
As part of the renewal, the DRTC realigned and evolved its core support, adding two new research cores to advance the science related to diabetes, obesity and metabolism. Research cores are shared resources that provide access to technologies, instruments, expert consultation and other services to investigators.
The Animal Metabolic Physiology Core, directed by Dave Wasserman, PhD, will offer specialized mouse services to Vanderbilt investigators. The Mouse Diabetes Clinic at Vanderbilt, also directed by Wasserman, will offer similar services to investigators outside of Vanderbilt.
The Analytical Services Core, directed by Owen McGuinness, PhD, and Dale Edgerton, PhD, will continue to provide specialized assays for hormone and metabolites for DRTC investigators. Remarkably, 65% of the DRTC investigators used this shared resource in the last five years. An Oxidative Stress Sub-core, directed by Ginger Milne, PhD, and a Lipid Sub-core will provide specialized assays to Vanderbilt investigators. The Islet and Pancreas Analysis Core, directed by Marcela Brissova, PhD, will continue to isolate and analyze pancreatic islets for DRTC investigators. This core will expand its services to provide multiplexed imaging and image analysis in a sub-core directed by Diane Saunders, PhD.
The Vanderbilt Diabetes Center and the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute have started a Genomics and Human Physiology Resource, directed by Jennifer Below, PhD, and Kevin Niswender, MD, PhD, that will assist investigators working in diabetes physiology and metabolism, as well as providing informatics and computational support for human genomic and transcriptomic investigation. A key resource for this group is BioVU, one of the world’s largest clinical practice biobanks based at VUMC.
The DRTC Pilot and Feasibility (P&F) program, previously directed by Roland Stein, PhD, and now directed by Sheila Collins, PhD, supports research projects by new investigators who typically have little or no independent research support or established investigators who are turning to diabetes research for the first time. The P&F program was particularly effective in the prior five years, leading to more than $8 million in new NIH grants and more than 25 publications.
The DRTC also partnered with the Vanderbilt Alzheimer’s Research Center, led by Angela Jefferson, PhD, to offer P&F funding for five projects at the intersection of Alzheimer’s and diabetes, in an initiative led by Fiona Harrison, PhD. Under the leadership of Sarah Jaser, PhD, the DRTC also organized P&F funding for investigators working on diabetes and obesity at institutions without a Diabetes Research Center in the Southeastern United States.
The DRTC’s enrichment and outreach program facilitates collaboration and enhances the training environment for students and fellows by organizing a weekly seminar and the annual Diabetes Day. When the COVID pandemic kept many scientists from traveling to collaborate with colleagues and initially limited educational efforts, Sean Davies, PhD, the center’s director of Enrichment, Training and Outreach established a virtual seminar series that since May 2020 has hosted more than 30 seminars for more than 2,000 registrants from 10 countries.
The effort is now a multi-institutional undertaking of all the NIH-funded Diabetes Research Centers in the United States.
The DRTC also serves as the coordinating and organizing center for the NIDDK Medical Student Research Program which has, over the past decade, allowed more than 1,000 medical students from more than 140 U.S. medical and osteopathic schools to conduct diabetes-related research at one of the NIH-supported Diabetes Research Centers. John Stafford MD, PhD, leads the medical student research program.
The Vanderbilt DRTC leadership and faculty are committed to addressing disparities in diabetes outcomes, and they intentionally consider equity and inclusion as research projects are designed and as the research workforce is built and supported.
“Diabetes is a global epidemic with the Southeastern United States having one of the highest rates of diabetes,” said Powers. “Importantly, the development, progression and treatment of diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes, is significantly impacted by social determinants of health such as access to health care, access to healthy food, housing, transportation and the environment in which we live and work. It is important to take a holistic approach to preventing and controlling diabetes, and at Vanderbilt we are committed to being a part of that solution.”
NIH funding for the DRTC is greatly amplified by Vanderbilt’s sustained commitment to provide research space and additional financial resources; a comprehensive array of research core services at Vanderbilt which allows NIH funds to target unique, diabetes-related research cores; and collaborative efforts with other NIH-funded research centers at Vanderbilt. For more information, visit www.vumc.org/vdrc/home.