'Always Wanted to Help Other People, Particularly Children'
When Ana Helena de Luca Karabell, MD, was a young girl growing up in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life.
Her inspiration was right there under the same roof.
"My father is a pediatrician and I spent a lot of time with him at the clinic and at the hospital," she recalled. "I knew I would like to do that when I was 7 years old. He loved his profession and his patients.
"He used to work in an area of very low income in Venezuela, and he never took any salary. He never turned anyone away if they could not afford to pay. So I always wanted to be in a position where I could help other people, particularly children. I always knew I wanted to be a physician."
Today, Dr. Karabell is a member of Baptist Medical Group's Endocrine Clinic and part of a national research team that is seeking to find the cause and a cure for Type 1 diabetes, or a way to slow the onset and better understand how the disease develops.
She is the principal investigator in the National Institutes of Health's TrialNet research study involving a blood test that can determine a person's risk for developing Type 1 diabetes before the symptoms occur. The study is called "Pathways to Prevention" and involves more than 200 research participants worldwide.
"In the United States, around 40,000 people are newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes every year, including almost half under the age of 20," Dr. Karabell said. "It's not like diabetes Type 2, which is associated with family history, exercise, diet and weight. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that can happen to anybody. They are very different diseases."
Approximately 30 million people have diabetes in the United States, with up to 95 percent being Type 2 in which the body does not use insulin properly. In Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, the hormone that regulates the blood sugar that provides energy for the body.
Once known as juvenile diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is found most commonly in people under age 40, although it can occur at any age. The immune system mistakenly attacks healthy, insulin-producing cells and destroys them.
Genetics plays an important role in developing Type 1 diabetes. Dr. Karabell says family members of those with Type 1 diabetes are 15 times more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes compared to those without relative with diabetes.
"The NIH TrialNet study involves a free simple blood test for people with relatives who have Type 1 diabetes so we can detect a person's risk of developing Type 1 diabetes before the symptoms appear," Dr. Karabell said. "Your participation will help the study and help us understand this disease, though not everyone wants to know the future."
She said TrialNet will stay in touch with those who participate in the study and keep them updated on advancements in treating Type 1 diabetes.
"It will allow us to identify our patients earlier and to be attentive to them before they get sicker," Dr. Karabell said. "That's very important."
After graduating from medical school at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1993, and then completing an internship and residency in Caracas, she moved to the United States in 2000 with her husband, Keith, a Philadelphia native, and their young daughter, Sofia. Their son, Kenny, was born in Memphis.
"Keith was studying music at Temple University in Philadelphia and was contracted as the principal clarinetist with the Orchestra Filarmonica Nacional de Venezuela in Caracas and we met through a common friend on a blind date," she recalled, adding that the political and social climate was going through upheaval in the late 1990s. "We knew things were not going to be good, and things started to deteriorate. We decided it was best to move to the United States. It was amazing how safe we felt when we got here.
"Everyone knew about Memphis and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and one of my father's friends did an internship here."
In Memphis, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. George Burghen at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital became her early mentor and friend. After a pediatrics residency and endocrinology fellowship at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she was hired as an associate at UTHSC, where Dr. Jay Cohen served as medical director. Dr. Karabell joined The Endocrine Clinic in 2009 under Dr. Cohen.
"I also did clinical research under Dr. Guillermo Umpierrez, Dr. Abbas Kitabchi and Dr. Samuel Dagogo-Jack, and I started truly loving endocrinology," Dr. Karabell said. "But I also had a personal reason: Both of my grandmothers died very young from diabetes complications. Since I finished my fellowship and residency in 2008, the greatest change in my area has been the advances in technology that apply to diabetes Type 1. This changes patients' lives."
Dr. Karabell, who remains connected to diabetes programs in Venezuela, is the medical director for a free summer program for children called Camp Day2Day sponsored by Baptist Memorial Health Care, the American Diabetes Association and Church Health. She also is a volunteer for Hopewell Summer Camp in Oxford, Mississippi, for children with Type 1 diabetes.
In fact, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation - of which Dr. Karabell is a board member - is scheduled to hold its annual One Walk fundraiser at the Memphis Botanic Gardens on October 5.
When not in the office, Dr. Karabell enjoys hiking, jogging and biking on the Memphis Greenline and at Shelby Farms with her family. Daughter Sofia is a junior and biology major at Rhodes College. Sofia is planning on becoming a veterinarian. Dr. Karabell's son, Kenny, is a fourth-grader at Bornblum Jewish Community School. It's a little early, but Kenny has rotating plans to become a scientist, singer or professional soccer player.
"I love the outdoors and I feel like a Memphian now," she said. "We are so lucky to be in a place that has a Greenline in the city and an amazing park like Shelby Farms. That's very nice."