Epidemic Epicenter

UTHSC’s Dr. Samuel Dagogo-Jack is named Physician of the Year and receives funding to continue his pre-diabetes research.

photograph courtesy of UTHSC

Nearly 26 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Twelve percent of adults in Shelby County have diabetes, higher than the national average of 8 percent.Dr. Samuel Dagogo-Jack of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) is helping change this harsh reality with his research in both pre-diabetes (blood sugars higher than normal, but not diagnostic of diabetes) and diabetes (high levels of sugar in the blood).

Dagogo-Jack was recently awarded a $3.1 million grant by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to implement his five-year study “Pathobiology and Reversibility of Pre-diabetes in a Biracial Cohort (PROP-ABC).” The study will be used to discover methods for erasing pre-diabetes and restoring a person’s original metabolism.

“It’s like pressing the reset button on your metabolic clock,” Dagogo-Jack says. “We used to think if you prevented somebody with pre-diabetes from developing to diabetes, you’ve done pretty well. But I’m saying that we need to be even more aggressive and ambitious. Why does that person need to stay pre-diabetic?”

Prior to receiving his latest grant, Dagogo-Jack was awarded $2.9 million by the NIH in 2006 for his project “Pathobiology of Pre-diabetes in a Biracial Cohort (POP-ABC).” Over the course of five years, Dagogo-Jack, along with a few colleagues, studied 200 African Americans and 200 Caucasians from the Memphis area. All of the volunteers had normal blood sugar levels. However, one or both of their parents had Type 2 diabetes.

Although the national percentage of Type 2 diabetes is higher among African Americans, Dagogo-Jack says his research allowed him to discover unprecedented information with regard to the relationship of diabetes and race.

“We tested these [volunteers] until they got to pre-diabetes,” Dagogo-Jack says. “We followed [them] every three months, checking their blood sugar. What we found was that if you had parents with diabetes, race no longer mattered. The rate of moving from normal to pre-diabetes was exactly the same in whites and blacks. That was previously unrecognized.”

Diabetes can be both extremely detrimental to a person’s heath and costly. According to the ADA, it’s the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, and lower-limb amputations. And, nationally, the total costs of diagnosed diabetes rose to $245 billion in 2012, a 41 percent increase from its 2007 figure of $174 billion.

Dagogo-Jack says Tennessee spends four times more money on people with diabetes and complications compared to people without the disease. And he says Memphis in particular “has a significant public health problem imposed by diabetes and its complications.”

“Memphis, Shelby County, and the state of Tennessee belong in the very epicenter of the diabetes epidemic,” Dagogo-Jack says.

Things that can help lower the risk of diabetes include modestly increasing physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption, and decreasing processed food intake, according to the ADA.

In addition to receiving the $3.1 million grant, Dagogo-Jack has been recognized nationally for his research efforts within the realm of pre-diabetes and diabetes. He was recently honored as Physician of the Year by the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing African-American physicians and health professionals.

Although he’s making a significant effort to lower the presence of diabetes in Shelby County, he’s also bringing awareness to the disease in his native country of Nigeria. Dagogo-Jack travels back to Nigeria annually to provide free medical services to residents in less fortunate societies.

“Over the last several years, I’ve been going out to southern Nigeria to the Niger Delta area, which is one of the most impoverished parts on the coast of West Africa,” Dagogo-Jack says.

“I try to group some doctors, and we go out there at least once a year and offer free medical service. We don’t make a big deal about it. It’s expected that those who are blessed should give back. And one of my ambitions as my schedule permits and resources become available is to actually expand some type of philanthropic facility of work, so that we can have more doctors who are very interested in joining to come out and help poor people in Nigeria get healthier.”


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