by Jill Clendening
Phillip Gorden, MD, a Vanderbilt University undergraduate and School of Medicine alumnus, was recently honored with the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center Lifetime Achievement Award, during the recent Diabetes Day sponsored by the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center and the Irwin B. Eskind Endowed Symposium.
The award was co-presented by Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine; and Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), with additional remarks from Daniel Diermeier, PhD, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University.
“After his clinical and research training at Yale, Dr. Gorden spent more than 50 years with NIH as a physician-scientist and leader of diabetes-related research,” Balser said. “He’s really a quintessential example of Vanderbilt’s commitment to the tripartite mission of education, research and patient care. In the past, we’ve honored Dr. Gorden with the Medical School’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Today, we’re excited to present him with the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Gorden had an extremely successful career as a physician-scientist and leader in the area of diabetes, metabolism and obesity for more than 50 years. He joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1966 as a senior investigator at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, a precursor of the NIDDK. He became a clinical director there in 1974. After a sabbatical at the University of Geneva to further his research on hormone receptors, he returned to NIH in 1978, and after several leadership positions in NIDDK’s diabetes branch, became NIDDK’s seventh director in 1986. He remained in this role until 1999.
“Phil is truly one of the NIH’s most conscientious and accomplished leaders and scientists,” Rodgers said of his former colleague. “He instilled compassion, integrity and wisdom into everything that he did, whether treating patients or conducting groundbreaking research, or leading one of the NIH’s largest institutes. He really set an example that few match but to which we can all certainly aspire.”
Gorden contributed significantly to many areas of science including describing the mechanism of insulin action, identifying the insulin receptor and its role in glucose homeostasis, and studying the proinsulin molecule, which led to the production of biosynthetic insulin.
Gorden’s work on severe forms of insulin resistance led to breakthroughs in treating lipodystrophy, a rare disease characterized by loss of fatty tissue. Based on clinical trials led by Gorden and his team, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved leptin for the treatment of generalized lipodystrophy in 2014. His team also conducted the first radiation therapy for the growth-hormone disorder acromegaly.
As NIDDK director, Gorden oversaw the launch of several landmark, multicenter clinical trials that helped shape diabetes treatment and management, including the Diabetes Complications and Control Trial, the Modification of Diet in Renal Disease Study and the Diabetes Prevention Program. Under his leadership, NIDDK also funded the establishment of several, multisite research centers across its mission areas, including kidney and urologic diseases, cystic fibrosis, and obesity and nutrition.
In 2018, Gorden was honored with the John Phillips Memorial Award as well as Mastership from the American College of Physicians, a national organization of internists. Gorden retired in 2022, after 55 years of service to the NIH.