A Historical Overview of Diabetes Research in Pittsburgh

One of the earliest and important figures related to diabetes research in Pittsburgh was T.S. Danowski, MD, an internist and a Yale-trained specialist in fluid and electrolyte physiology, who came to Pittsburgh in 1947. He was the first full-time member of the clinical faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and became Children's Hospital's Renziehausen Professor of Pediatrics.

At Children's Hospital, Dr. Danowski developed a first-class clinical program for the care of children and adolescents with diabetes mellitus, attracting patient referrals from all over the tri-state area. He also developed a research program to study electrolyte and energy abnormalities related to the excessive buildup of ketones (organic compounds) in the body caused by diabetes. More importantly, Dr. Danowski began initial observations into the treatment of this disease in western Pennsylvania. He remained at Children's Hospital until 1955.

Robert Klein, MD, succeeded Dr. Danowski and, in turn, was replaced in 1962 by Frederic Kenny, MD. Both Drs. Klein and Kenny were pediatric endocrinologists who trained at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. They focused primarily on adrenal physiology in their research programs while maintaining an active, high-quality clinical care program for the large number of children and adolescents who came to Children's Hospital under Dr. Danowski.

In 1966, Allan Drash, MD, made the move from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Children's Hospital and to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. It was his responsibility to develop and expand the research program in childhood diabetes and to expand the clinical care program for children and adolescents with diabetes. Dr. Drash developed a strong program in diabetes research, focusing initially on the causes of diabetes and genetics, as well as hormonal alterations caused by the disease.

During the 1970s, collaborations between Dr. Drash and Lewis Kuller, MD, at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, led to the organization of a formal research program to study the treatment of diabetes in children and adolescents in western Pennsylvania.

The first National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant resulting from that important collaboration was funded in 1978. The grant has been competitively renewed three times and is now in the 18th year of consecutive funding. The grant also became the keystone around which numerous other related projects were undertaken, many of which gained funding by additional grants. Important faculty members involved in this research include Dorothy Becker, MBBCh, who joined the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at Children's Hospital as a post-doctoral fellow in 1974, and Ronald LaPorte, MD, Trevor Orchard, MD, and Janice Dorman, MD, from the Department of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health. This group, and their numerous collaborators around the world, helped to develop what many regard as the premier center for the study of the treatment of Type 1 or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.

Dr. Drash, who was president of the American Diabetes Association in 1983—84 and is now the Editor-in-Chief of the ADA-sponsored scientific journal, Diabetes Care, has played an important role during his tenure in recruiting new junior investigators to the team. One example is Silva Arslanian, MD, who joined the faculty in 1986. In her research, Dr. Arslanian has made important observations regarding the process of normal energy metabolism in preadolescent and adolescent children and how the process is altered by disease, such as diabetes mellitus, obesity and growth retardation.

Other important additions to the Pittsburgh diabetes endocrinology team in 1986 include Massimo Trucco, MD, from the University of Pennsylvania, and Massimo Pietropaolo, MD, who trained at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston and the Barbara Davis Diabetes Center in Denver. Dr. Trucco brings valuable expertise in the genetics of Type 1 diabetes and molecular biology. His contributions have changed the way most of the clinicians think about the genetics and causes of Type 1 diabetes. Dr. Pietropaolo brings special expertise in the study of the humoral immunology of Type 1 diabetes.

In 1989, Mark Sperling, MD, then chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, gave the precise mandate of promoting basic science research at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. His training as an endocrinologist, with clinical and laboratory experience and particular expertise in pediatric diabetes, added a new dimension to the diabetes endocrinology program at the Diabetes Center of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.