George fulfilled his parents’ dreams for him to reach high and make his life count. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, his parents pushed him to reach beyond his high school, Grover Cleveland, where only 5 out of 100 students went to college. They encouraged him to have the audacity to apply for and win, in 1965, the prestigious Pulitzer Scholarship to study biology at Columbia University. He continued his education, earning MD/PhD degree at Duke University in 1975; residency and fellowship in Endocrinology came next. Harold Lebovitz, a famous physician-investigator, mentored George at Duke and attracted him to autoimmunity and diabetes. As an endocrine fellow he was first author for a NEJM paper describing HLA association with the autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type II (1978). It was obvious that he was destined for greatness.
His journey would lead him to discover major parts of the puzzle of type 1 diabetes. It led George to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD (1977-79), to work as a postdoctoral fellow with Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg, the scientist who discovered how the genes translate their code into proteins, Barton Haynes and Anthony Fauci. Enriched by this research experience, he returned to Duke University as an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Physiology to head a laboratory devoted to diabetes research.
Dr. Eisenbarth’ next faculty appointment began at the Joslin Diabetes Center, Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1982. Here, he founded its Immunology & Immunogenetics Section and discovered the linkage of diabetes of the NOD mouse to the MHC genes. He also studied a group of twins identified by Dr. J. Stuart Soeldner. The twins were genetically identical (monogenic) but only one had diabetes. George demonstrated that most of the non-diabetic twins had an autoimmune inflammation in their pancreatic islets detectable by the presence of autoantibodies against insulin-producing beta-cells. They would go on to develop diabetes, although it could take years. George was one of the first investigators who recognized that type 1 diabetes results from a chronic autoimmune inflammation and a gradual loss of insulin-producing cells. This major discovery soon became one of the medical paradigms. A figure illustrating the stages of disease progression, published originally in 1986, helped conceptualize the natural history of type 1 diabetes; it has been copied and modified countless times.
In 1992, the University of Colorado School of Medicine recruited Dr. Eisenbarth as the Executive Director of the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes. Over the past twenty years since then, the Center grew under his leadership into one of the world’s leading diabetes research institutes. The Center’s clinics have also expanded tremendously, from serving about 800 pediatric patients to providing care to over 3,400 children and 2,600 adults with type 1 diabetes, today. George worked closely with the Children’s Diabetes Foundation at Denver, the fundraising arm of the Barbara Davis Center, led by Ms. Barbara Davis.
The central premise of Dr. Eisenbarth research of the past twenty years was the key role played by insulin in sustaining the chronic progressive autoimmune destruction of the pancreatic beta cells. His laboratory has approached this hypothesis from various angles, in animal models and human studies. George championed prevention trials with insulin preparations given as a “vaccine” to restore tolerance to insulin-producing cells and prevent diabetes. The seminal work of DPT-1 and TrialNet consortia were in large part inspired by his work. George’s innovative research ranged from basic and clinical immunology, to genetics, pathology, and clinical trials. His most recent focus was on disentangling the interactions within a “trimolecular complex” formed by the HLA molecule, antigen, and T-cell receptor. George saw the understanding of this interplay as critical to development of a new generation of drugs that could prevent or even cure type 1 diabetes.
His laboratory has perfected measurement of islet autoantibodies that are being used as the tools to identify the earliest stages of islet autoimmunity and predict the risk of progression to diabetes. These assays also help to confirm the diagnosis of type 1a (autoimmune) diabetes in patients of any age. Several ongoing large consortia, including TrialNet, T1D Genetic Consortium, and TEDDY are using George’s laboratory as the reference lab.
Over the past year, George has successfully developed a new generation of these assays that are more specific and do not require radioactive reagents. The research and clinical communities are likely to benefit from this work for years to come. George was awarded the highest national and international honors. Among many others, he was bestowed the American Diabetes Association Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award (1986) and the Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement honoring meritorious lifetime career achievement in diabetes research (2009), Naomie Berrie Award from Columbia University (2003), Pasteur-Weizmann/Servier Prize in Biomedicine (2006) and the Mary Tyler Moore and S. Robert Levine Excellence in Clinical Research Award from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (2012).
George will be remembered for his unselfishness and natural sense of collaboration, as well as for his scientific successes and his unquenchable desire for discovery. He authored over 500 publications and often shared his important data with other scientists prior to publication. George had preached and practiced the “open source” approach to research data. For this, as much as for the quality of his work, he gained the utmost respect of the research community. He participated as an intellectual leader in several international scientific consortia and networks, including DASP, DPT-1, TrialNet, Autoimmunity Prevention Centers, Autoimmunity Centers of the Excellence, Immune Tolerance Network, Brehm Coalition, and nPOD.
George was an outstanding mentor and source of inspiration to scores of young scientists from over 40 countries world. He encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, recognizing at the same time diversity of backgrounds, skills and goals of his trainees. His own perseverance, work ethics, critical thinking and willingness to acknowledge the contribution of other members of the team taught us high standards to carry on as part of his legacy. In recognition of his mentoring, nominated by his former fellows, George received the Albert Renold Award for Distinguished Service in Mentorship and Training of Diabetes Research Scientists from the American Diabetes Association.
His life was cut short prematurely, at the age of 65, by pancreatic cancer. After surgical removal of his pancreas, he was personally touched by insulin-dependent diabetes and became a spokesperson for modern diabetes care technology, including continuous glucose monitoring. He did this in his usual humble manner, seeing an opening to teach and help others.