November 9, 2009
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NIH’s David Harlan recruited to head Diabetes Center of Excellence

WORCESTER, Mass.—David M. Harlan, MD, a leading figure in diabetes research, has been appointed by the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) and UMass Memorial Medical Center as the Director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence and the Division Chief of Diabetes; Harlan will also be the Associate Director of the UMMS Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center. Currently the Diabetes Branch Chief at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, Harlan will join the institutions in December.

“David Harlan’s pursuit of basic and clinical research into type 1 diabetes and his lifelong dedication to public service make him uniquely suited to lead us into the next phase of our research and care programs,” said Terence R. Flotte, MD, Dean of the School of Medicine, Provost and Executive Deputy Chancellor, UMMS. “His experience in leading NIH clinical trials will be tremendously important in bringing the work of several UMass scientists to the clinical realm.”

“UMass Memorial cares for hundreds of diabetes patients from throughout Central New England and, frankly, it’s alarming to see the numbers increase year after year,” said Walter Ettinger, MD, MBA, President of UMass Memorial Medical Center. “A clinical researcher like David Harlan will help guide important work that will have a direct impact on patients here and around the world.”

Harlan will develop and implement the clinical and research strategies of the Diabetes Center of Excellence while managing the inpatient and outpatient programs and the operational and strategic administration of multidisciplinary programs as UMMS and UMass Memorial seek to create a Center that is among the best in the country in clinical excellence, innovative medical care and cutting-edge research.

“Dr. Harlan’s views of clinical research and public service are closely aligned with the vision of our academic health sciences center,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, Chancellor of UMMS. “We share a sense of urgency with regard to the needs of diabetes patients the hospital cares for today and the research that holds so much promise for tomorrow.”

Harlan received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1977 and his medical degree from Duke University in 1980; he completed his internship and internal medicine residency at Duke University Medical Center. While a US Navy medical officer at the Navy Hospital in San Diego, he spent three years at the University of California—San Diego School of Medicine before returning to Duke to complete a fellowship in Endocrinology. Around that time, he had what he describes as an epiphany that has directed his career in medicine.

“I wanted to be an internist because I wanted to be one of those doctors who know everything about their patients. I loved seeing patients and really enjoyed being a resource for them, but at the same time I began to feel that we really didn’t understand the diseases we were treating.” After listening to a presentation about research using a transgenic mouse model for hepatitis B, he approached the speaker and asked why he was spending so much time on research instead of treating patients who needed care. “His simple answer—that until we understand on the molecular level what causes disease, we can’t cure or properly treat it—changed my focus. Understanding diabetes sufficiently well to cure the disease has become my North Star, the driving factor in my professional efforts, and it has led me here to UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial.”

Harlan has immersed himself in diabetes care and research and is particularly interested in tolerance mechanisms and organ/tissue transplantation, as well as autoimmune illnesses, especially insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. In 2001, he and his NIH colleagues were the first in the United States to reproduce the Edmonton protocol, a treatment in which islet cells isolated from a cadaver pancreas are transplanted into a diabetic patient to overcome insulin dependence for those with difficult to control disease; an innovative treatment developed at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Harlan and colleagues created a mirror program, and Harlan evaluated and cared for each patient before, during, and after their transplant. He saw the treatment could allow patients to discontinue their insulin injections, but at a cost. He concluded the approach was severely limited by the immunosuppressive therapy (required to prevent the islet cells from being rejected) and other problems. He has since worked to find better treatment strategies.

As the new Director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence and the Division Chief of Diabetes, Harlan comes to Worcester with three goals: to build a patient-centered clinical care system focused on providing the most up-to-date therapies while also exploring new methods of treatment; to build on the strengths of the basic science research already underway and expand investigation into autoimmune disease; and to promote translational research and bring promising laboratory advances safely into clinical trials.

“The breadth of work underway [at the Medical School and Medical Center] is impressive,” he noted, citing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes research and innovative clinical care. “There’s a brilliant scientific base and fertile ground for using current and future therapies. The leadership is obviously committed to driving the science to improve the care delivery system, and I am eager to help make it happen.”

Harlan has published more than 100 scientific papers and has made hundreds of presentations on islet transplantation, immunology, multidisciplinary therapies and other topics related to diabetes, and is a reviewer for more than a dozen journals.