Dr. Claresa Levetan is an endocrinologist and the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Perle Bioscience, a pharmaceutical research and development company, at the forefront of diabetes research.
Can you share with me your career path from the beginning? How did you get to where you are today?
If I connect the dots backwards, my mother had a best friend who had diabetes. I saw this woman who was once vibrant and healthy lose her limbs, go on dialysis, and become blind. When she passed away it had a big impact on me. Then my father got diabetes. This disease stuck in my mind.
I also love art and I’ve been doing sculptures and collages since I was young. I approach science with a right brain perspective of taking odd things and putting them together like a picture. I went into Endocrinology, which for some people is a tough specialty with a lot of complexities. But for me, it just made sense. And diabetes is much more of an art than a science. Unlike other areas within Endocrinology like hyperthyroidism, which is treated with a thyroid hormone pill, or menopause, which is treated with an estrogen replacement, diabetes doesn’t have a perfect fit. In diabetes, you have a loss of cells that make insulin and another hormone embelin, but you also lose the islet cells that make hormones.
Frederick Banting who discovered insulin enabled us to treat people with diabetes and consequently, patients lived who were previously destined to die. But they also became hypoglycemic [a condition characterized by abnormally low blood sugar levels] and gained weight. So we have this treatment called insulin, which saves people’s lives, but it’s not working as well as having functional islets.
How would you explain your research at Perle Bioscience to a layperson?
The body is a perfect machine and works intuitively. If something goes wrong, the body is going to try to fix it. If you injure the pancreas, as in diabetes, there are stem cells that can be turned on to help repair it. At Perle, we tried to figure out what those genes are so that ultimately we can give people a therapy by which they can generate their own new islets and insulin producing cells again. We’re working with the body to self-regulate, rather than simply injecting insulin.
I’m mostly focused on patients with type 1 diabetes, people who predominantly get diabetes in childhood, because those are the patients that have dramatically shortened lifespans as a result of the disease. In those patients there are two problems: 1) there’s an autoimmune attack on the insulin producing cells and 2) there’s an inability to regenerate the cells. This population has the greatest need and there’s currently no other option than to be on insulin.
What has the greatest obstacle been?
Fundraising. When I used to work in academia as the Chief of Endocrinology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, I had two large NIH [National Institutes of Health] grants. Our path at Perle is very different because we’re raising money on our own, which gives us much more flexibility to do the research we want to do, and at our own pace – much faster than it would be in an academic lab. The downside is we need to raise the money. We’re not your typical Harvard lab. We’re trying to get our own funding and trying to run as fast as possible.
This is a potentially transformative therapy. There are a lot of egos. Other researchers are working in silos. We have a different vision – our vision is bigger. We’re trying to take a different approach by completely redefining diabetes.
What is it like being a woman in the industry?
I’ll tell you one story. When we were raising money for Cure DM [Dr. Levetan’s first company preceding Perle Bioscience], we must have met with ten venture capital funds in San Francisco and the last morning our male investment banker had to fly home. The only VC we weren’t invited back to was the one in which our investment banker wasn’t at. I think it’s still a man’s world. You’re more successful raising money as a man than as a woman.
What are you most proud of?
My answer to that question has changed over the course of different points in my career.
A few decades ago, I chaired a conference where Senator Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Diabetes Caucus, and Newt Gingrich, who was the Speaker of the House, were involved. I helped the American College of Endocrinology and the American Diabetes Association set target goals for post meal sugars, which had never been done before. I helped standardize the names of A1C tests [a common blood test used to diagnose diabetes and then to gauge how well you’re managing your diabetes.] We hired Gallup to poll two doctors in every state and asked what name they used for this test and we got over 60 names from 100 doctors. We standardized the name to A1C and at the time that felt huge.
When I lived in Washington, I met with several members of Congress who had children with type 1 diabetes. I was instrumental in creating a Congressional Diabetes Caucus. Now those are the two largest caucuses in the House and in the Senate.
When Bill Clinton was president, I helped write the legislation for Medicare to reimburse patients for meters, strips and insulin pumps. I’m looking forward to the day when there are no more meters and strips. I’m looking forward to the day when diabetes is a disease of the past.
One of the most fun days of my life was this past year when I recorded a diabetes song in Nashville with Adam Lasher, Carlos Santana’s nephew who was a finalist on American Idol, and Amanda Jo, both of whom have type 1 diabetes. I used to sing these diabetes songs to my kids in the car and when I got to record it I had a total blast.
What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?
The first time I wrote a paper as a Fellow in Endocrinology I got rejected. I was shocked. I had to keep submitting it over and over. When the paper was finally accepted it felt almost as good as giving birth to a child.
I get knocked down but I try to realize that it’s just part of the past. I’ve been able to keep going knowing that everything isn’t going to be perfect.
Who inspires you?
Frederick Banting, the scientist who was the first person to use insulin on humans. He was also a painter.
Hanging on my wall in my office are pictures of famous failures like Oprah Winfrey who was told she wasn’t fit for TV, and Michael Jordan who was cut three times from his high school basketball team.
Patients who smile even though they are going through a tough time.
I’m inspired by life. I have this opportunity to really help.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want everyone with diabetes to be off of insulin. I’m an eternal optimist and I believe that in 2016 we have the tools to reverse diabetes. And I’m planning to make sure that happens.