One of E. Dale Abel’s mentors at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, was the School of Medicine chairman, whose strong interest in diabetes and passion for discovery rubbed off on the young scholar. Today, Abel, MD, PhD, is internationally recognized for his research on heart failure in diabetes. Since 2013 he has directed the University of Iowa’s Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center, launched in 2008 with a $25 million gift—one of the largest commitments to diabetes research institutionally in the nation. Throughout his career, Abel’s accomplishments have been celebrated with numerous honors, awards, and appointments to leadership positions. Two such acknowledgements came after his visit with Medicine Iowa: In October, he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Medicine, and in December, Abel was named chair and departmental executive officer of internal medicine, the largest specialty department in the UI Carver College of Medicine.
Q: What attracted you to the University of Iowa?
A: People and potential. There were already incredible people here working in the broad area of diabetes—senior investigators who were very collaborative, collegial, and committed to doing something bigger than their own work. The Eagles gift brought them together under an umbrella with a more thematic focus around diabetes to create synergy, collaborations, and a powerful message to successfully recruit others.
Q: Who do you want on the diabetes research center team?
A: Excellent investigators who understand the importance of collaboration. We have already recruited in certain areas, attracting exceptional talent in metabolism, obesity, neural regulation of energy expenditure, and tissue engineering, which ultimately becomes important in terms of regenerative medicine for treating diabetic complications and diabetes itself. Plans are underway to recruit into other areas as well. We recruit in partnership with departments and colleges across the university, as well as with our other major research initiatives, including the Obesity Research and Education Initiative.
In a very forward-thinking way, founding director emeritus Daryl Granner (’62 MD, ’62 MS) initiated the process of recruiting junior talent to Iowa, into a nascent diabetes center, even before I came. He had directed the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center, and before that was head of a diabetes center here, both part of a network funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He clearly has a spectacular track record at doing this.
Q: Which UI research shows the greatest potential?
A: I’m always reluctant to pick one or two things to the detriment of others. Clearly there are approaches that, on the surface, appear more exciting, but there are also things that look a little under the radar right now yet could be amazingly innovative. There has been very innovative work on the regulation of appetite, on the regulation of how the liver makes glucose and handles nutrient overload, and on a novel hormone—fibroblast growth factor 21—that may help to prevent weight gain and diabetes by increasing the body’s ability to burn off fat as heat.
Investigators are working on things that I call the “magic bullet,” which if true could become very specific anti-obesity therapies, for example. Additional work is developing a better understanding of the biology of the fat cell, and of the way the brain controls an individual’s preference for certain kinds of food. In another lab, mesenchymal stem cells are being explored as cell-based therapies for diabetes and diabetic complications, with the potential to restore function to damaged tissues. And another team has used human skin cells to create human insulin-producing cells that respond to glucose and correct blood-sugar levels in diabetic mice. This could be a first step toward developing patient-specific cell replacement therapy for Type 1 diabetes.
The other aspect of research is what I call the penumbra, which is not necessarily diabetes-related but reflects our intellectual horsepower, such as the Strategically Focused Hypertension Research Center. Many of its key players are members of the diabetes research center. We also support translational research— ideas that change the way we execute health care delivery related to diabetes. For example, one of our pilot and feasibility grantees, an infectious disease specialist, has used innovative electronic tools through smartphones, the Web, and game theory that could have a big impact on people’s behavior in controlling diabetes. We certainly want to encourage people to think outside the box.
Q: The University of Iowa formerly had an NIH-funded Diabetes Endocrinology Research Center, awarded in the 1970s. Are we pursuing funding for another center?
A: The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) has not increased the number of Diabetes Research Centers, so the only way to get one is to knock somebody off the list. The established centers are strong and obviously work very hard to maintain their status. I would hope within five years that we’d compete, but given the current federal funding environment, it’s hard to predict. Our investigators have had success securing NIDDK grants, which is a metric by which they determine whether to fund you as an NIDDK Diabetes Research Center.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I’m very motivated by talent and by people’s willingness to push boundaries and push the envelope. One of my roles is cheerleader in chief. When members of my lab or colleagues within the diabetes center tell me what they have discovered or are just about to discover, or they sit down with me to plan a strategy for applying for grants or publishing their research in a journal, those encounters are very energizing because they represent the multiple elements that ultimately will feed into our success.