Guest column: Investing in Louisiana’s health research crucial _lowres

William Cefalu

Dr. William T. Cefalu is leaving his job as executive director of Pennington Biomedical Research Center to become the chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association.

Cefalu, who has been executive director of Pennington since 2012, will join the diabetes association on Feb. 20. He replaces Dr. Robert E. Ratner, who retired at the end of 2016.

"Diabetes remains one of the world’s major chronic disease threats, and the association has an incredible human responsibility to change the trajectory of the disease," Cefalu said in a statement. "As a Louisianian and a physician, I’ve seen diabetes impact my state firsthand. This new role is a tremendous opportunity for me to continue to significantly influence health, mortality and quality of life for so many, and I look forward to the challenges."

Cefalu was born in New Orleans and grew up in Amite. He is a graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University and LSU Medical School. He taught and led clinical trials at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, but returned to Louisiana to take over as chief of Pennington's Division of Nutrition and Chronic Diseases in 2005.

Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said Cefalu's move could provide Pennington with the same kind of national connections and networking opportunities that detecting gravitational waves did for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Livingston Parish.

LIGO was unknown until the scientific team there detected gravitational waves in 2016, he said. Now the facility is known globally.

"So much of what Pennington digs into related to chronic disease comes back to diabetes. It makes it quite an interesting crossover for that," Knapp said. "Pennington is one of the most important economic assets in Baton Rouge, so to have another connection in a national organization like that gives us a great leg up."

Cefalu said the ADA is a scientific organization and research funding is competitive.

"What this means to me as the scientific and clinical director of the ADA is I can use the expertise of Pennington. I recognize the expertise here as far as nutrition and exercise and lifestyle, and for that matter technology," Cefalu said.

From time to time, the ADA needs that type of expertise, he said. While at Pennington, the ADA invited Cefalu to participate in trips to foreign countries — including Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam — where researchers helped develop programs to improve diabetes care.

Cefalu said the ADA also has state-level efforts, such as prevention programs involving state organizations and even the YMCA.

His experience in Louisiana gives him "a pretty good feel" for the expertise in the area and where state-level programs will work, he said. Being familiar with diabetes in Louisiana and the burden of the disease will only help him in his new job.

Pennington officials said they will begin a search to find Cefalu's replacement.

"It is a huge testament to the caliber of the research underway at Pennington Biomedical that one of our own has been asked to lead the fight against diabetes in such an important national and international role," said C. Kris Kirkpatrick, chairman of the board of the Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation. "Under Dr. Cefalu’s leadership, Pennington Biomedical has expanded its reputation as a world renowned nutrition research center."

Cefalu served on the Baton Rouge Health District's board. Suzy Sonnier, executive director of the Baton Rouge Health District, said Cefalu's departure is a loss for the community and the district.

Louisiana has high rates of diabetes and obesity. The health district has made a diabetes and obesity center one of its top priorities.

Cefalu understood the area's health needs and championed efforts to prevent, mitigate and eliminate diabetes and pre-diabetes, Sonnier said. She's hopeful that Pennington, the district and Baton Rouge will be able to continue working with Cefalu in his new role.

"There's just so much great research that has gone on at Pennington and continues to go on that not only impacts our community but around the world," Sonnier said. "I think he'll continue through his new role to champion that research and have that ability to truly have an impact on chronic disease like diabetes."

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.