Combining Ambition with Compassion

Dr. Rubina Heptulla: Combining Ambition with Compassion

Dr. Rubina Heptulla arrived in the Bronx earlier this year, drawn by the opportunity to lead the division of pediatric endocrinology at Einstein and its University Hospital, Montefiore Medical Center. The greatest draw, however, was the knowledge that she would be able to continue her research on pediatric diabetes.

Dr. Rubina Heptulla
Dr. Rubina Heptulla
“I’m particularly excited about working in an internationally recognized center with researchers whose work would really complement my own,” she said. “I’m looking forward to collaborating with colleagues at Einstein and Montefiore, in both the Diabetes Research Center and the clinic.”

Dr. Heptulla envisions building the pediatric endocrinology division at Einstein and Montefiore while splitting time between her various roles as a researcher, clinician, and division chief. “I hope to spend 60 percent of my time on research and the rest on addressing administrative and clinical work,” she said. “I realize it will be tough to balance, but my greatest desire is to learn how we can more effectively treat diabetes, while ultimately finding a cure.”

Her passion for diabetes research stems from growing up with a father who had type 1 diabetes. “Ever since then, I always knew I wanted to do research related to diabetes,” she explained.

She elected to focus on pediatric patients because of the influence she could have in helping to set good habits for her patients at an early age. “When you intervene at a young age, you can set a course that helps the patient to avoid further complications down the line.”

In her efforts to make life better for those with diabetes, a portion of Dr. Heptulla’s current research focuses on the development of an artificial pancreas. She noted, “Data in the field has shown that maintaining normal glucose concentrations leads to a decrease in complications from the disease. Since the pancreas is vital to a patient’s ability to properly process glucose, my studies exploring after-meal glucose homeostasis have led me to investigate what an artificial pancreas might do to help patients who have diabetes with this process.”

She explained further: “An artificial pancreas could be worn by patients and allow them to maintain proper blood glucose concentrations while continuing with their daily activities. The device would be fully automated and mimic what the pancreatic cells do in the body.”

Toward that goal, Dr. Heptulla and collaborators at Medtronic, a California-based company focused on diabetes care, received a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Having already completed canine studies that demonstrated the potential efficacy of this device, the researchers have developed an IRB-approved protocol for studies involving adults at Montefiore’s Weiler Hospital. Ultimately, they plan to test the device on pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM).

“Once we have completed the studies, we would like to make the device smaller for ease of wear and to optimize it for exercise, eating and stress, which would further expand the benefits for diabetes patients,” she said.

Dr. Heptulla also is aiming high in her role as division chief, stating, “I would like our division to be the best pediatric endocrinology division in the country.”

One individual who is confident in her ability to achieve these goals is Dr. Philip Ozuah, chair of pediatrics, who noted, “We sought to bring Rubina here because of her vision and ambition. Her promising research efforts and focus on improving child health are a potent combination that will serve our patient population well.”

A large part of Dr. Heptulla’s plan to advance the division involves endocrinology research, with a focus on four main areas: diabetes, bone biology, endocrine cancers and postcancer survivors, and furthering health services research. From a clinical perspective, her own research will focus on two primary areas: discovering novel ways for delivery of multiple hormones along with preservation of beta cells; and examining the barriers to achieving delivery of patient treatments, specifically concerning the risk factors for adherence to regimens.

Noting that health literacy can be a major roadblock to effective diabetes management, Dr. Heptulla said, “Everyone needs access to the best care, and sometimes the barrier may be as simple as making sure we’re talking at a level appropriate to the patient. For example, by using layman’s terms when speaking to patients, we can provide explanations and instructions that are clearer, eliminating a possible barrier to their adherence of essential treatment.”

Dr. Heptulla comes to Einstein and Montefiore from Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas, where over nine years, she rose through the ranks to associate professor. As she adjusts to her new surroundings in the Bronx, she is excited about tackling the challenges of researching a cure for diabetes, making life better for patients with diabetes, and making the pediatric endocrinology division at CHAM the best there is.

Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2010