Medicine and public service was in Dr. Griffin Rodgers’ blood long before he became a celebrated hematologist. And as the director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, he spends his days searching out cures for some of the most common, chronic and costly maladies that plague Americans and making those discoveries accessible to the public.
His fervor is palpable. Hearing him talk about the social and economic toll of the diabetes epidemic—25 million Americans affected by Type II diabetes and another 79 million with pre-diabetes—one can easily see where he passion to educate the public comes from.
Rodgers shares useful information on how to prevent and manage diseases in a daily, syndicated radio segment called “Healthy Moments,” among other campaigns. Before an interview was completed with a reporter, he had provided her with an extensive list of information about—and his assistant later e-mailed links to—several programs and toolkits to educate the AFRO’s readers about how to prevent or attain treatment for several ailments.
“There’s an imperative that we have to develop better treatments and ultimately cures for some of these common and costly diseases,” he said.
As the NIDDK administrator, Rodgers, 59, oversees a $2 billion annual research budget and 1,300 of the country’s most gifted researchers in the fifth-largest of the National Institutes of Health’s 27 institutes. His agency’s research seeks solutions for diseases such as diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, urologic diseases, liver disease, gall bladder disease, inflammatory bowel diseases and the like.
“As a physician, principally you’re interested in healing, and one has an opportunity in this position to have a major impact on the lives of many billions of Americans and people around the world,” he said. “That’s a satisfaction beyond belief when you can say you’ve contributed at some level to…improved therapies for these chronic and costly conditions.”
It has been a long road to success from his days growing up in New Orleans, where the importance of living up to his potential was engrained in him by his parents–a high school physical education and science teacher and a public nurse, along with the priests at the prestigious all-male St. Augustine High School. His graduating class had more National Achievement finalists than the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama combined, Rodgers said.
“Consciously or subconsciously I was programmed for a career in medicine,” he told the AFRO. “I used to go out with my mother on the weekends to visit some of her patients that lived in the housing projects in New Orleans, as she provided them and their family members with vaccinations and other things. That kind of got me interested in the medical profession.”
But his defining moment came in high school when three of his closest friends were diagnosed with sickle cell anemia and later died. At that time, the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there wasn’t much that could be done for sickle cell patients except to treat pain and administer transfusions.
“That stuck with me…. They say it’s quite tragic for parents to bury their children, and I think the same is true for kids or teenagers because you feel, at that age, that you’re invincible,” Rodgers recalled. “To see a friend suffer from a chronic disease and not be able to do much but talk to them and hold their hand is tragic.”
The loss guided his specialization in hematology. During his clinical rotations, Brown University’s founding chair of dermatology, Dr. Charles McDonald proved an unlikely mentor. Dr. McDonald had developed a means of treating psoriasis with chemotherapy and Rodgers later adopted those findings to develop the first effective, FDA-approved therapy for sickle cell anemia.
“It’s very exhilarating,” Rodgers said of making a discovery that has saved so many lives. “It did remind me of those three friends I had and made me think that if only I were born earlier, if I could have developed this back then, it could have been available for them.”
Sickle cell anemia is just one of many diseases that seem to disproportionately impact African Americans because of genetic and environmental reasons, Rodgers said—a trend he noticed even when he tagged along behind his mother as she made her neighborhood rounds.
Because of that, Rodgers ensures that NIDDK’s research includes African Americans and other vulnerable populations.
“We make it a point in our studies to oversample for patients who are at risk,” he said. “So we make it a priority to make sure they are included in our trials and retained in our trials because after we get the results of the trials we want to make sure that…if they respond to interventions we can then target our educational campaigns to the specific groups that are at greatest risk.”
Despite the pressures of his job—any given day he may be meeting with NIDDK researchers to develop new initiatives, evaluating the sponsorship potential of research ideas at tertiary education and other institutions, meeting with policymakers, the public and more—Rodgers said he remains excited about the career he has chosen.
“The future has never looked brighter. On many of these diseases I’ve mentioned, basic science has really pointed to potential targets that may be used for better treatments and potential cures…,” he said. “We’re seeing a confluence of these ideas that are taking us in new and exciting directions. The challenge, of course, is in order to do this research, it does take funding.”
Because of the nation’s financial woes, “important decisions” have to be made by the government about which programs will receive the dollars, he said.
“The major challenge in the next three to five years is making sure there is adequate funding to continue the research momentum that has already occurred,” Rodgers said.
•National Diabetes Education Program: http://ndep.nih.gov/.
•National Kidney Disease Education Program: www.nkdep.nih.gov.
•The Kidney Sundays initiative raises awareness within faith communities about the risks for kidney disease and the importance of getting tested. For a Toolkit and other information, visit: http://www.nkdep.nih.gov/get-involved/kidney-connection/kidney-sundays.shtml.
•Sisters Together: Move More, Eat Better, a national program designed to encourage Black women ages 18 and older to maintain a healthy weight: http://www.win.niddk.nih.gov/sisters/index.htm.
•Healthy Moments: Hear it during the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” on Radio One stations WMMJ-FM MAJIC 102.3 in D.C. and WWIN-FM MAJIC 95.9 in Baltimore; or access the latest and archived episodes online by visiting http://www2.niddk.nih.gov/ and using key search words “Healthy Moments.”