WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – In the face of rapidly increasing numbers of adults and children with diabetes, Wake Forest University School of Medicine has created a new diabetes research center to expand already extensive research on the disease through the development of programs that integrate basic and clinical research.
Donald W. Bowden, Ph.D., has been named director of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine Diabetes Center by William B. Applegate, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president of Wake Forest University Health Sciences and dean of the medical school.
“The Diabetes Center will be a multidisciplinary research and education center that will collaborate with a large variety of programs and centers,” said Applegate, who said that Bowden would report directly to him.
The dean said that investments totaling more than $3 million by the departments of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, as well as school funds, had made the center possible.
Bowden, professor of biochemistry and internal medicine (endocrinology/metabolism), said, “Establishment of the center is a reflection of the important role that diabetes research plays at the Medical Center, and the enormous impact that diabetes is having on public health in our country.”
Bowden said research on diabetes at the medical school totaled more than $25 million this year among 10 departments and three centers. Among the leaders: Public Health Sciences with 27 projects, Internal Medicine with nine projects, Family and Community Medicine with seven, Biochemistry with seven and the Hypertension Center with six.
“Diabetes research studies at the medical center cover the entire spectrum of modern research,” Bowden said. These studies range from laboratory studies investigating basic cellular mechanisms leading to diabetes all the way to participation and leadership in major national clinical trials of prevention and treatment programs.
“The medical school has special strengths in several areas of diabetes research,” he said. Among those are studies of the genetic contributors to diabetes and complications of diabetes such as cardiovascular disease and kidney conditions. “A particular strength of the genetics group is diabetes in minority populations.”
He added, “Wake Forest is a major participant in clinical trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health targeting diabetes prevention and prevention of cardiovascular disease and other complications in people with diabetes.” Among the most important are two studies that are aimed at reducing heart disease in people with diabetes: ACCORD (Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes) and Look Ahead, which involves 5,145 participants at 16 medical centers, and already has shown that as obesity increases in people with diabetes, so does the risk of cardiovascular disease.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 20.8 million children and adults in the United States – 7 percent of the population – have diabetes, and of those, 6.2 million don’t know they have it.
“The prevalence of diabetes is growing at an alarming rate and contributes to serious complications including heart and kidney disease,” Bowden said. “Vision and nerve problems are common in people with diabetes.”
In diabetes, the body either fails to produce enough insulin or properly use it. Insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. Both genetics and environmental factors (such as obesity and lack of exercise) are among the causes of the disease.
Bowden himself is a leading diabetes researcher at the medical school, especially in the genetics of diabetes. In the November 2004 issue of Diabetes, he reported that a gene called PTPN1 (Protein Tyrosine Phosphatase N1), found on chromosome 20, is involved in the body’s response to insulin and leads to type 2 diabetes. He found six common variants of the PTPN1 gene. A risky variant is found in about 35 percent of the Caucasian population and a protective form is found in about 45 percent. The risky variant of PTPN1 makes a protein that represses the insulin response, leading to higher glucose levels in the bloodstream.
Bowden said two factors are typically involved in diabetes: – insulin is no longer having the same effect metabolically, which clinicians call insulin resistance, and production of insulin in the pancreas is impaired.
Bowden is a 1972 graduate of Vanderbilt University and earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1978. .He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke University Medical Center in 1981. He has been a faculty member at the School of Medicine since 1989 and has written more than 150 scientific publications, most on diabetes.
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 18th in family medicine, 20th in geriatrics, 25th in primary care and 41st in research among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.