Jen Block has a reputation for being one of the kindest, most compassionate, and also capable diabetes researchers and clinicians out there. She also lives with type 1 diabetes herself. She’s been instrumental in Artificial Pancreas studies through the years, and is now in a key leadership role at the closed loop startup Bigfoot Biomedical.
We were thrilled to connect with her recently for this interview on her life and times, and where she sees Automated Insulin Delivery (AID) systems going in the next few years.
DM) Hi Jen, tell us first about your own diagnosis…?
JB) I was diagnosed with T1D while in college. My then-boyfriend (now husband), Ueyn and I were driving across the country visiting Mesa Verde, Moab, Mount Rushmore, The Badlands etc. and all the while I was stopping at every opportunity to use the restroom and refill my water bottle. I had wasted away and was eating as much as I could. The diagnosis was made in an ER about five hours from home. I’m so glad we were able to finish the trip.
So you two have been together since the start of your T1D life?
Yes, I met my husband when I was 12 and he was the incredible man who never left my side when I was diagnosed. He even slept in the ICU next to me! We have been married 20 years this summer and we have two incredible boys who are the greatest joys of my life: Evan (9) and Jonas (12). I also have an incredible family who have always been a great source of love and support. In my free time, I love spending time with my family and friends as well as hiking, reading, knitting and racing myself at Soul Cycle.
What was it like being diagnosed with T1D as a young adult in college?
When I was diagnosed, I had so many questions about diabetes that I knew I may never get all the answers. Within the first month of diagnosis, I had read every book in the public library about diabetes (type 1 and type 2) and wanted to learn more. I had an insatiable desire to continue learning. I had a million questions I was seeking answers to. What would it be like to have kids? Would I be able to scuba dive? Should I use a pump or stick with shots (pun intended)?
My first endocrinologist was Dr. Greg Gerety, in Albany, NY. He patiently answered all of my questions and taught me so much about diabetes. He has an incredible story behind his career choice and he inspired me to pursue a career in diabetes.
Was that your motivation to get into the diabetes healthcare profession?
Actually, I grew up surrounded by healthcare. My mother is a pediatric speech pathologist and my father was a pharmacist who served in leadership roles during innovation in parenteral nutrition and pharmacy automation. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that could help others and my parents were my inspiration. And then as mentioned, it was my first endo and his patience that gave me the final inspiration to focus on diabetes – along with my own type 1, of course!
You were part of early Artificial Pancreas research with the legendary Dr. Bruce Buckingham at Stanford… can you share more about that?
I joined the team at Stanford University specifically because I wanted the opportunity to work with Bruce Buckingham. I had previously worked in diabetes education for a small local hospital and Bruce had an office in the same space where he saw pediatric patients with diabetes. I had the chance to witness him caring for his patients with incredible skill and compassion and wanted to learn from him.
I joined the team at Stanford around the time Dr. Buckingham had secured an NIH grant for DirecNet (the diabetes research in children network). The coordinating center was The Jaeb Center for Health Research and there was a total of 5 clinical centers across the United States. This team worked to conduct early research on glucose sensor technology with the hope of demonstrating that the technology was ready for use in Automated Insulin Delivery (AID). From the early sensor work we expanded into AID starting with systems that suspended delivery to treat and prevent low glucose and eventually to systems that used a variety of means to automate insulin delivery in an effort to reduce exposure to both low and high glucose. It was an exciting time, and working closely with Dr. Buckingham taught me so much about diabetes management and diabetes technology. This work and the opportunity to partner with the team at the Jaeb Center for Health Research led by Dr. Roy Beck and Katrina Ruedy inspired my interest in clinical research. While I love working with patients, the chance to do research that has the potential to benefit so many people inspired me.
What was the most fascinating aspect of AP research a decade ago, and how does that tie in with where we are now?
A decade ago, we were really still convincing ourselves that CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) technology was accurate and reliable enough to be used in automated systems. Today that is no longer in question; sensors are accurate and reliable and now the goal as I see it is to innovate the AID systems such that they are more desirable and accessible for a broader population of people with diabetes and providers.
Why did you join the closed loop tech startup Bigfoot Biomedical?
Because I had come to know and respect the incredible contributions that the founders had made to diabetes, and for me, trusting in the leadership to deliver on a mission is key. I was excited about the chance to reimagine how we as a company can partner with people with diabetes to deliver systems as a service, completely changing the paradigm of how we as a company support people with diabetes.
Each day I go to work I have a chance to look at the challenges we face with so many lenses: the person with diabetes who struggles to manage diabetes, the clinician who wants to help as many people as possible to achieve improved health while balancing it with their lives, and the researcher who wants to ensure we keep challenging ourselves to innovate and make change.
Can you describe your role at Bigfoot?
As VP of Clinical and Medical Affairs at Bigfoot Biomedical, my job is to support the incredible clinical team. We primarily support the company by:
- Providing the product, human factors and risk management teams with clinical input on the products and services we design and implement.
- Designing and conducting clinical trials to evaluate the safety and feasibility of our systems and generate evidence necessary for their coverage.
- Leading the effort to revolutionize how we support people with diabetes to learn about our products and services so they can use them safely and effectively.
- Supporting the regulatory team in interactions with the FDA that will facilitate regulatory approval for our products
You’ve been recognized for being a key female leader in the diabetes industry… how do you respond to that and why is it important?
Thank you for your kind words. It is humbling for me to be considered a leader in the diabetes industry. Admittedly, I do not think much about my role, instead I focus on the importance of the work I have the privilege of doing.
I believe anyone in a leadership role in diabetes needs to gain a deep understanding of the customers we serve and the challenges they face (both people with diabetes and their providers). As a person with diabetes I know only my story and my challenges. I am humbled by the challenges that others face and know that there is so much we can do to drive improvement, but to do that, we need to be empathetic and commit to constantly learning about how we can improve.
There’s so much progress underway. What do you find the most exciting thing in diabetes right now?
Since the DCCT and UKPDS irrefutably taught us about the importance of glycemic control and intensive management in the prevention of complications we’ve seen many advances in diabetes technology and therapeutics but we have failed to see a complementary improvement in glycemic control. I believe this is because there is a high level of complexity associated with intensive management and for many people (myself included at times) it can all seem to be too much. I am most excited about innovation that reduces complexity and is accessible to more people.
How does Peer Support weave into what you do professionally and personally in living with T1D?
Peer Support is so important! I am so fortunate to have been surrounded my whole life by family, friends and colleagues who understand diabetes and who support me in the management. The benefit to me of having type 1 diabetes is that with my diagnosis I gained a family of people living with and touched by diabetes– all of whom inspire me.
I carry the stories and inspiration I have gained from everyone I have ever met with diabetes and those who support us. This is one incredible community with some of the kindest and bravest people I have ever met. You all inspire me every day.
You inspire us too, Jen! Thank you for taking the time to share your story and the important work you are doing to help our D-Community.