Adolfo Garcia Ocana

Riggs Institute welcomes new diabetes researcher

Adolfo Garcia-Ocaña, Ph.D., has joined City of Hope as the new chair of the Department of Molecular & Cellular Endocrinology. He has dedicated his career to studying the mechanisms that drive beta cell health

Noted diabetes researcher Adolfo Garcia-Ocaña, Ph.D., has joined City of Hope as the new chair of the Department of Molecular & Cellular Endocrinology within the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute. He will also serve as the Ruth B. & Robert K. Lanman Chair in Gene Regulation & Drug Discovery Research. 

“We are truly honored to have Dr. Adolfo Garcia-Ocana join the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute leadership," said Debbie Thurmond, Ph.D., Chan Soon-Shiong Shapiro Distinguished Chair in Diabetes and director of the Riggs Institute. "His team has generated one of the most promising breakthroughs towards reversing diabetes. Adolfo’s innovative spirit, along with his collaborative and collegial nature, made him the ideal recruit and fit to our City of Hope culture."

Adolfo Garcia-Ocana
Adolfo Garcia-Ocaña, Ph.D.

“He is a phenomenal scientist, and his research has led to the overturning of a long-held belief that it is not possible to make new beta cells," added Alberto Pugliese, M.D., Samuel Rahbar Distinguished Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery, director of The Wanek Family Project for Type 1 Diabetes and chair of the Department of Diabetes Immunology. "He and his colleagues at Mount Sinai have unveiled compounds that have this ability, have tested those in experimental models, and paved the way for advancing new therapies to clinical trial testing.”

Pugliese went on to disclose that City of Hope is partnering with the Mount Sinai team and Garcia-Ocana to advance this novel therapeutic concept. “Dr. Garcia-Ocana’s work makes it possible to advance, in a therapeutic space, the formation of new insulin-producing cells, which is the fundamental need of all patients with type 1 diabetes."

Garcia-Ocaña’s work in cell proliferation may be applicable to cancer research and treatment as well, according to Charles Brenner, Ph.D., City of Hope’s Alfred E. Mann Family Foundation Chair in Diabetes and Cancer Metabolism.

“Dr. Garcia-Ocaña is a dynamic and accomplished researcher who has made significant contributions to understanding how pancreatic beta cells can maintain their function and cell mass,” he said. “All of us at City of Hope are looking forward to working with him and his colleagues to extend knowledge in diabetes and metabolism.” 

Garcia-Ocaña holds three patents for his diabetes research and is currently ranked No. 41 in the world out of 31,022 researchers publishing on insulin-producing cells, as listed in Expertscape. He is passionate about using the latest technologies (genomics, proteomics, 3D imaging and metabolomics) to uncover and translate significant findings into safe and innovative therapies to treat diabetes. At City of Hope, Garcia-Ocaña is leading a team working on improving islet cell replacement and regeneration, as well as identifying biomarkers to detect diabetes development.

Originally from Madrid, Spain, Garcia-Ocaña received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Universidad Autonoma of Madrid. 

A Passion for Research

“I have always loved biology and biochemistry, from the school days to college and beyond. And I have always been intrigued about how our body works, why we get sick, how cells function,” Garcia-Ocaña said. “I have constant curiosity for all these things. That’s why I became a scientific researcher.”

After securing a postdoctoral fellowship in biomedical research from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he began working with endocrinologist Andrew Stewart, M.D., at Yale University. Stewart became Garcia-Ocaña’s mentor, and a year later, he accompanied Stewart to the University of Pittsburgh.

There, as part of a research team, Garcia-Ocaña described for the first time that expression of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) in vivo in insulin-producing beta cells markedly increases beta cell proliferation, mass and function. In addition, he was able to demonstrate for the first time the beneficial effects of HGF in improving islet transplant outcomes. These results highlighted the potential of growth factors, and in particular HGF, for beta cell regeneration and islet transplantation in diabetes.

After nearly 15 years in Pennsylvania, both Stewart and Garcia-Ocaña moved to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. There, Garcia-Ocaña became a professor of medicine in the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Institute and director of the Human Islet and Adenovirus Core of the National Institutes of Health-funded Einstein-Mount Sinai Diabetes Research Center.

Following his 10 years at Mount Sinai, Garcia-Ocaña decided to come to City of Hope.

“I was ready for a new challenge. This is my last move, so I had to choose wisely. I had to choose the right place. That place was City of Hope,” he said.

Enhancing Beta Cell Function

Garcia-Ocaña will lead efforts to identify cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in type 1 and type 2 diabetes development and seek out therapies to stop or reverse the disease’s progression. Additionally, he will focus on discovering ways to boost the body’s ability to make and support insulin-producing cells to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. 

As chair of the Department of Molecular & Cellular Endocrinology, Garcia-Ocaña hopes to build upon the strong foundation that was laid for him by his predecessor Thurmond, now director of the Arthur Riggs Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute.

“I would like to expand the department in a way that makes it even more interactive and more proactive,” he said. “I would also like to introduce some new areas of research in endocrinology that are not currently represented. The department has been run so nicely that it has been an easy transition for me so far.”

Two things that drew Garcia-Ocaña to City of Hope were the sunny Southern California weather and the opportunities for collaboration with other researchers and physicians. Unfortunately, it rained nearly every day for his first two weeks in his new hometown. His attempts to collaborate with his colleagues, however, have been more successful.

“I don’t believe in individual efforts. Nowadays, the way things are advancing so quickly, it requires collaboration among different individuals. The synergy and the willingness to collaborate at City of Hope is very strong, and I love that.”

Collaboration Is Key

Rama Natarajan, Ph.D., deputy director of the Riggs Institute and professor and chair of the Department of Diabetes Complications & Metabolism, is also looking forward to collaborating with Garcia-Ocaña and his team.

“We are extremely excited to have Dr. Garcia-Ocaña as our colleague. His extensive experience in pancreatic islet biology, drug development, state-of-the-art genomics, proteomics and 3D imaging, as well as his mentoring and leadership skills, are invaluable to the Riggs Institute,” said Natarajan, the National Business Products Industry Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research.

Collaboration at home is also important to Garcia-Ocaña, and he considers the support of his wife to be an integral part of his success. Throughout his impressive career, she has been by his side.

“Julia always supports me. She encourages me. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Garcia-Ocaña has had a long and impressive career, but he is still grappling with many of the questions he had when he first started. What drives him to continuing searching for answers is his commitment to improving the lives of diabetes patients. 

“There are so many questions that do not have answers yet in the diabetes field. I want to contribute, with my work, to their answer one day,” said Garcia-Ocaña. “Among the many lessons I learned from my mentor, Dr. Andrew Stewart, one was to have a big picture of the problem you are trying to tackle in the lab. He was always asking me to go to the hospital and talk to the patients with diabetes, asking them about their daily routine of checking for glucose, their complications, their suffering. That will keep you going in the lab, trying to help them in any way you can."