ADA’s newly appointed Vice President of Research Programs, Tamara “Mara” Darsow, PhD, is going to keep diabetes awareness on the front burner and encourage fellow scientists to translate basic research into the clinic.

By John Parkinson, DiabetesCare.net Clinical Content Coordinator

Dr. Darsow (pictured) was named the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) vice president of research programs in January. She will oversee the research grant programs and research committees for one of the most well-known and prestigious organizations involved in diabetes research. ADA has had a long standing tradition of serving as a voice for the scientific community, and Dr. Darsow will continue in that role of advocating on behalf of researchers.

Dr. Darsow has experience in both the research and communication realms. Her most recent professional experience was as the director of external research programs and strategic relations at Amylin Pharmaceuticals. Along with having oversight of the company’s outside research initiatives, Dr. Darsow lent scientific support for Amylin’s medical affairs activities. Prior to her position at Amylin, Dr. Darsow was a Damon Runyon post doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, where she developed and led an independent research program. She has also been a co-author on numerous publications and abstracts, many with a focus on type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

And it is her crossover capabilities that aided in ADA’s decision to hire her. “Mara’s experience in clinical and basic research, medical communications, and grants program management make her uniquely qualified for her position,” said David Kendall, MD, chief scientific and medical officer, in an ADA press release.

Her main areas of focus will be to continue to raise awareness of the disease, the need for continued research, and cultivate more translational science initiatives. Dr. Darsow wants to encourage the scientific community to move into the realm of translational science, taking the basic research done with animal models and move it into clinical trials, so it can be applied in medical practice.

The following are some of the discussion highlights of the conversation with Dr. Darsow:

DiabetesCare.net: Congratulations on being named vice president of research programs. How does it feel to become part of the American Diabetes Association?

Dr. Darsow: I feel very honored to be part of the association. ADA has a mission that is really compelling. I was previously in academic research and then in biopharmaceuticals. In all those roles, I felt I was doing something that may help people, and here I feel that I’m one step closer to that.

DiabetesCare.net: What will be your major responsibilities and areas of concentration in the position?

Dr. Darsow: I have broad oversight of the research programs, and that includes everything from policy and strategy to grants administration. We work with a volunteer committee of external experts to formulate our research policy and strategy, and then oversee and administrate the programs internally. Another part of my job will be to raise awareness of the ADA research programs with our donors, supporters, and researchers to make sure people know what we are doing, and why we are doing it, and to encourage more involvement.

DiabetesCare.net: The ADA has the reputation of being an organization that is interested in new research. As someone who has a research background yourself, what are you going to be looking for in exciting research areas?

Dr. Darsow: While I’ll admit there are all sorts of areas that I might personally find interesting in diabetes research, I think it is more of the approach that I am interested in. These include cross-functional, multidisciplinary ways to think about the disease, the pathophysiology, and treatment―new ways of approaching these problems can lead us to answers.

DiabetesCare.net: On ADA’s website, it mentions how the association can help members of the scientific community with helping bridge the importance of their work and engage the federal government in funding initiatives. Having been on the other side, does having an advocate like the ADA interested in your research help tremendously? And should scientists look to the ADA as an advocate for help?

Dr. Darsow: I think the association is helpful in a number of ways. First, by just raising the general awareness of the importance of the problem of diabetes. That, in and of itself, should result in increased support of diabetes research.

We also benefit tremendously from the researchers we support. They raise awareness themselves, and more importantly, are making important discoveries that may lead to potential treatments. So, it’s a beneficial relationship in both ways.

DiabetesCare.net: I saw in the summer/fall 2009 issue of ADA’s Forefront Magazine there was a decrease in funding from 2008 to 2009. While the economy is slowly getting better, is this still a particularly challenging time to raise funding for research?

Dr. Darsow: I agree things are slowly getting better, but it is still a challenge. Despite this challenge, from 2009 forward we have managed to maintain our research support levels at the same level and have avoided further decreases in funding. We will continue to do that, and hopefully as the economy improves and funds become more available, we’ll be able to increase support for research.

DiabetesCare.net: One of the things I have been reading and hearing of late is that there is a feeling that there is a limited amount of human clinical trials in the area of type 1 diabetes research for a cure. Do you think this is true, and if you do, is there more that could be done to encourage the scientific community to work in this area?

Dr. Darsow: Over the last few years, in our program we have been actively encouraging more clinical and translational research. We have traditionally funded more basic research, but there has been an effort to balance that out.
It is really a big hurdle (translational research), and many (research projects) don’t work out. However, we do support a lot of promising immunology, islet biology, transplant, and complications work. All of them have tremendous potential to be important in the clinic. By encouraging more proof of concept clinical work we hope to get more research into the clinic.

DiabetesCare.net: How have you seen the research paradigm evolve over the last few years?

Dr. Darsow: One of the trends I have observed is that there appears to be an increasing awareness of the importance of translational sciences—how to take basic discoveries to the next step.

In the past, it often appeared to be an after-thought, but now it is becoming more and more integrated and researchers are being proactive in the way that they think about their work. You also see this in the capabilities of academic institutions growing to support translational science. All of this helps take discoveries over the difficult hurdle from bench to bedside.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you share a couple of your goals for the coming years?

Dr. Darsow: First and foremost, I want to be able to increase our funding to laboratories and clinics doing diabetes research. That is something we are committed to as an organization and it is something I’m committed to in this position.

If you can find a silver lining in the current economic situation it is that there seems to be a move towards greater cooperation and collaboration between agencies like ADA, other non-profits, government and businesses to make investments in diabetes research.

And this leads to research that is complementary and of mutual benefit. People are making sure they spend wisely and in a way that is not duplicative. More and more, there is a transparency and collaboration that allows us to put resources where both parties agree support is needed. Through these types of collaborations, I believe we can increase our ability to fund research in diabetes that needs additional support.

That is one goal, and another is the continuing need to raise awareness of diabetes and our research programs. I want to increase the interest of diabetes research as a field and within the academic community, and to bring more of the bright minds to the table to solve the problems facing patients with diabetes. If I can take a few steps towards those two goals, I will be pleased.


To find out more about the American Diabetes Association and ongoing research, go to www.diabetes.org and look for the news and research tab.