Clinical Director, University of South Florida Diabetes Center
TAMPA – Henry Rodriguez does not waver when asked to reflect on a bold prediction he made when he became clinical director of the University of South Florida Diabetes Center in 2010. “I believe that the children born today who develop Type 1 diabetes will see a cure within their lifetime,” he said then.
“I do still believe that,” Rodriguez said recently as he talked about how the clinical, educational and research programs at USF have gained international recognition. In fact, Rodriguez is more encouraged than ever about the prospect for a cure.
“My professional life has focused on improving the lives of those affected by diabetes,” said Rodriguez, 49, who was appointed earlier this year to the board of directors of the American Diabetes Association. The ADA cited Rodriguez’ work as a local lead investigator on one national, and two international, multi-center trials investigating the causes of Type 1 Diabetes, as well as a pilot trial to investigate selective immunosuppression in people with new-onset Type 1 diabetes.
“I currently chair the Pathway to Prevention Trial for the Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet consortium,” Rodriguez explained. “This is a global network of clinician-researchers and basic scientists working toward the prevention of Type 1 diabetes in those at risk, and a cure for those already affected.” Since his arrival at USF, he said he has “worked with our team to ensure that the USF Diabetes Center will lead progress toward a cure.”
The TrialNet Consortium was established about 10 years ago, he said, and USF is a coordinating center, led by Diabetes Center Director Jeffrey Krischer, MD, who hired Rodriguez. Rodriguez chairs a study called Pathway to Prevention, which is screening family members of patients with Type 1 diabetes to determine if they are at greater risk of developing the disease. “To date we have screened more than 100,000 children in TrialNet globally,” he said. “And the information is available not only to TrialNet investigators, but other investigators who are interested in Type 1 research, in particular the characteristics of the patients and family members we are studying,” he said.
Rodriguez said the mission at USF is clear: “Build a world-class center of clinical care and research ... to better utilize emerging technologies to assist in the delivery of care and education of our patients and fellow diabetes care providers.”
Collaborating with those local providers is key to the Diabetes Center’s priority of being an educational resource, he said, adding “the community here has been just terrific in their support” and interaction with the center.
But it was the support Rodriguez received from USF’s leadership that persuaded him to leave his position as a professor and researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
“One of the major reasons Dr. Krischer was able to recruit me was that he assured me we had the support of (USF Health CEO Stephen) Klasko and President (Judy) Genshaft in making diabetes a priority,” said Rodriguez. Krischer “has in excess of $400 million in research funding, the majority of which focuses on Type 1 Diabetes. ... He convinced (them) there was a need for a comprehensive research diabetes center and they should support it from a financial and programatic perspective,” Rodriguez said. The 10,000-square-foot space set aside in the Morsani Center for Advanced Healthcare opened in November and is an “inviting environment” dedicated to both adult and pediatric diabetes care, education and clinical research, he said.
The program’s success will be “very much a team effort” by staff, patients and their families, Rodriguez said. “We are here to empower them to manage their disease. Diabetes is a part of their lives, but it doesn’t haven’t to be the focus of their lives.”
One way Rodriguez does that is through his long-time participation in diabetes camps for children, first in Indiana and now in Florida. “I can’t be positive enough about it. It is a great experience for the kids, most of whom don’t have any classmates who have Type 1 diabetes. It’s an opportunity for them to have fun in a safe environment while learning from their peers and their counselors who also have Type 1 diabetes,” he said.
“It’s also a very valuable experience for the families (especially those) where the child hasn’t been away from home partly because the parents are fearful about letting them. And it also is an opportunity for the parents to focus their attention on their other children who don’t have diabetes, and sometimes aren’t the primary focus,” he said.
But patients and families are not the only beneficiaries of diabetes camp. “It is a tremendous experience for medical and nursing students. It is valuable for them to learn how to deal with Type 1 on a daily basis,” said Rodriguez. “We see children when they are diagnosed or in the hospital very ill, and then for a few minutes when they come in for an outpatient visit, but to have a medical student, or a nurse or a dietician there for a week and really working with the children and adjusting their insulin doses, is important. Because, if the dosage is off, they’ll see the consequences right away,” he said.
Rodriguez said “his terrific” children, Emily, 15, and Daniel, 13, have joined him at diabetes camp, as has his wife Janet, a stay-at-home mom who juggles school and after-school activities for the kids, never saying no to a request to volunteer and all the while keeping things running at home. The whole family is active at St.Paul’s Catholic Church in Carrollwood.
Janet wasn’t always super mom, however. “She was a pediatric critical care nurse. I was in my second year of pediatric training (at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami),” Rodriguez said. “She had always told herself she would never date a doctor. I had pretty much said the same about nurses,” he laughed.
A New York native whose parents emigrated from Cuba, Rodriguez said his biggest professional challenge was his journey to his medical degree. He attended a “six-year biomedical program (at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.) that condensed 4 years of premedical studies and 4 years of medical school into an intensive 6-year curriculum that included summers,” he said. “This limited my extracurricular activities but assured that, with sustained academic success, I would be admitted to medical school (at Albany Medical College).”
His MD in hand, Rodriguez completed his pediatrics residency in Miami, and then a fellowship in endocrinology at the University of California in San Francisco. Then he worked at Michigan State University for a couple of years before signing on at Indiana University School of Medicine. It was there that he cemented his reputation as a thought-leader about Type 1 diabetes, and also where he first donned what has become a trademark.
A colleague, James Wright, MD, was retiring and he always wore a bow tie, Rodriguez said. “His wife indicated that the reason he wore the bow tie was because, as a pediatrician, his regular ties often got in the way or were a distraction to the little ones.” Besides, getting them dry cleaned was expensive, she joked. So, at Wright’s retirement party, “everyone did a song and dance number and we all wore bow ties in his honor.”
Rodriguez is in his 12th year of continuing that practical fashion statement.