(November 16, 2012) On behalf of the scientists of the Diabetes Research Institute, we express our deep sadness for the loss of George S. Eisenbarth, M.D., Ph.D., who passed away last Tuesday as a consequence of pancreatic cancer. He was 65 years old.
The type 1 diabetes research community has clearly lost one of its most innovative and respected leaders. Dr. Eisenbarth’s work during the last 40 years has spearheaded critical advances in diabetes research. He has led the field towards improved understanding of the disease causes; he has effectively applied these discoveries to strategies for disease prediction, prevention and cure. In fact, key aspects of clinical trials design and even key therapeutic goals of ongoing clinical trials derive from his contributions. Dr. Eisenbarth was well known for his focus on promoting collaboration and accelerating the pace of discovery and progress towards a cure, and to achieve these goals he provided the intellectual stimulus for many important research studies that are addressing fundamental questions about type 1 diabetes. Further, he has trained many diabetes investigators around the world, who are themselves giving key contributions to the field.
The DRI has had close ties with Dr. Eisenbarth for many years.
DRI’s Deputy Director and Chairman of the Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet, Jay Skyler, M.D., has been a friend and colleague of George Eisenbarth for over 40 years, since their days in training together at Duke University – George as an M.D.-Ph.D. student and Jay an Endocrinology Fellow, both together in Harold Lebovitz’s laboratory – and has closely collaborated with him ever since. For example, the Diabetes Prevention Trial – Type 1 (DPT-1) study, a multi-center clinical trial directed by Dr. Skyler that tested insulin as a disease specific therapy to slow disease progression in individuals at risk for type 1 diabetes, originated from animal and pilot studies conducted by Dr. Eisenbarth, who also was heavily involved in the planning of DPT-1. In Dr. Skyler’s words: “George was not only a great thinker, his enthusiasm for scientific advances was manifested as child-like joy, whether it be a discovery of his own or one of his colleagues, or by anyone else that advanced the field. His openness, collegial attitude, warmth, and outright brilliance made him the perfect individual with whom to work. This was particularly manifested with those who trained under him, where he continually pushed them and facilitated their recognition and success. We shared his first clinical experiences in diabetes – at the diabetes summer camp I directed – where living 24/7 with children with type 1 diabetes gave us both an appreciation and understanding of the realities of type 1 diabetes that became an important stimulus to our efforts to eradicate the disease. All of us in the field will re-double our efforts to achieve George’s principle scientific goal – prevention of type 1 diabetes.”
Alberto Pugliese, M.D., Director of the DRI’s Immunogenetics Program and Co-Director of the JDRF nPOD program, trained with Dr. Eisenbarth both at the Joslin and the Barbara Davis Center, before joining the DRI. Over the years, Dr. Pugliese and Eisenbarth have continued to collaborate on several projects, including studies that discovered an unsuspected role for insulin in the thymus in relation to the autoimmune process that causes type 1 diabetes, and the formation of the nPOD program, a large collaborative network that aims at advancing cure-focused research by addressing critical questions through the study of patients’ tissues. As noted by Dr. Pugliese: ”There is no question that the field has lost a true giant. George was possibly the smartest man I have known. His logic was unbeatable, and yet he had an open mind; he always let data, not beliefs, decide a question. He was always fair and honest, and unselfish. As a Fellow training with him, I never had an imposition from him, only support and guidance. I will always be thankful for all he taught me. I remember, when back in 1993, towards the end of my Fellowship, he told me that I had become my own man and needed to establish my own research program; a few months later, per his recommendation, I joined the DRI in Miami. Throughout these years, we have continued to interact and collaborate. Whenever we saw each other, he would always ask that we get together, share a meal, and talk. Over the years, a true friendship developed, based on mutual respect and appreciation. He was a driven man, and until the end he was conducting what I consider some of the most promising research I am aware of; in my own reflections, his awareness that he would not live long enough to see his goals realized must have been unbearable. Despite all his physical and emotional suffering, he never once complained or expressed regrets, always finding the positive side in any situation. In the last exchange I had with him, less than two weeks prior to his passing, at a point when his general health was severely compromised, he told me not to worry about him, and that he was optimistic that my generation would see type 1 diabetes cured. The field has lost a leader and an inspiration, and I have lost great friend.”
Our thoughts go to the family, his colleagues and friends.