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A bird’s-eye view

Published: June 24 2008

A birds eye view

Mark Atkinson

American Diabetes Association eminent scholar
Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine

Mark Atkinson is a big-picture guy in a small-picture world.

Over the last 17 years, Atkinson has forged a reputation as one of the world’s leading diabetes experts by conducting innovative basic research on the physiological changes that cause the debilitating disease.

At the same time, Atkinson has sought to pull back and understand how advances in his field and in related fields can be used most effectively to serve patients and their families.

“Pathologists are thought by many to be individuals who focus on details. They hang around the microscope and try to look at smaller and smaller images,” Atkinson says. “While there’s a time for doing that, there are also times when it’s better to take a step back and look at the whole picture.”

Atkinson has been heralded for his ability to bridge research interests with a commitment to directly serve patients and their families. He leads tours of his lab. He answers dozens of e-mails each month from people desperate for a cure. He gives generously of his time to national organizations such as the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, regularly updating physicians and the public about the latest research developments.

An internationally recognized authority on type 1 diabetes, he has particular interests in disease prediction and prevention, the role of environment in initiation of the disease, stem cells and pancreatic regeneration, and the identification of novel drugs as a means to cure the disease and prevent its complications. Ask Atkinson how he views his role, and he boils it down like this: Find what causes diabetes, predict who is at risk, then prevent the disease altogether.

Fresh out of a graduate program in pathology at UF’s College of Medicine, Atkinson was the first to show that administering insulin to mice genetically destined to develop diabetes could thwart the immune system’s battle to destroy insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas. His published findings helped pave the way for the massive National Institutes of Health Diabetes Prevention Trial, which tested the approach in humans. Atkinson also helped develop a standardized test used to predict diabetes.

Today, as the American Diabetes Association eminent scholar in UF’s Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine, Atkinson leads a team involved in many research pursuits. These efforts have seen continuous financial support from the National Institutes of Health, the ADA, the JDRF and the Jeffrey Keene Diabetes Research Endowment at the University of Florida.

Atkinson says despite major advances in tests capable of predicting diabetes years before the onset of symptoms, researchers have been stymied in their efforts to prevent or reverse the disease.

So he continues doing what he does best – traveling the world and preaching the gospel of diabetes prevention, treatment and cure.

Although he has logged nearly 1 million miles in the air and some weeks spends more time on an airplane than in his laboratory, Atkinson says his schedule offers him an opportunity to reflect in solitude on that big picture.

“I do see the value of getting that 35,000-foot perspective on things,” he says.

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography
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