Cynthia Rice, JDRF’s Chief Mission Strategy Officer, will leave behind quite a legacy once she steps down from her role at JDRF at the end of March 2023.
“In her time with JDRF, she has led with strategic purpose and passion,” read JDRF CEO Aaron Kowalski’s December 2022 memo announcing Cynthia’s decision to leave. “She has been an incredibly valuable partner to me, as well as staff and volunteers throughout the organization.”
During her tenure at JDRF, she has helped bring the artificial pancreas project to life, has driven efforts to renew the Special Diabetes Program, and was a key player in JDRF’s response to and handling of COVID-19—all with the partnership of our strategic staff and vast network of volunteers, who are the bedrock of our advocacy efforts.
“It’s possible—while challenging—to impact the research and development (R&D) ecosystem to improve options and outcomes for people living with chronic diseases like type 1 diabetes,” says Cynthia. “Defining goals, tapping into strengths, building capacities, and remaining determined in the face of obstacles are critical.”
And for nearly two decades, she has done just that at JDRF.
“Leverage—enlisting others to our cause—is critical to our success and core to our organizational DNA, whether it’s engaging friends and families, company R&D heads, government officials, or foundation leaders,” Cynthia says.
The Artificial Pancreas Endeavor
Cynthia came to JDRF in September 2005. Real-time continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) were in the early stages of development, with one approved just months prior.
Aaron Kowalski, Ph.D., who had come to JDRF a year before and is now the CEO, and Jeffrey Brewer, a member of JDRF’s International Board of Directors at the time, had just spent six months interviewing academic scientists, corporate executives, and other like-minded players to figure out whether JDRF wanted to take on the development of an artificial pancreas. There were many barriers, and companies were very wary of getting involved.
In the interviews, it became clear that despite the hesitation among companies, there was significant potential benefit for the T1D community in pursuing artificial pancreas technologies. The leadership—needed to foster a therapy roadmap, research funding, regulatory pathway, and health care access—just wasn’t there.
JDRF changed that. We made it a priority, bringing not only our research funding, but also our powerful advocacy forces, to speed the development of these devices.
“The goal of multiple artificial pancreas systems, with ongoing innovation, drove our strategy,” says Cynthia, “and we took actions early on with that goal in mind, utilizing our strengths, building new capacities and relationships, and battling doggedly to overcome obstacles.”
Overcoming the Obstacles
Among the first obstacles was that the benefits of continuous glucose monitoring in the management of T1D had only been shown in small studies. In 2008, a JDRF multi-site randomized control clinical trial showed that people with T1D who used the devices experienced significant improvement in blood-sugar control. This was instrumental to CGM coverage and laying the groundwork for the artificial pancreas system to come to fruition and be covered by the healthcare system.
Another obstacle was linking together the two main components of a closed-loop artificial pancreas system—the glucose sensor and an insulin pump. JDRF established the Artificial Pancreas Consortium, which connected researchers from several different laboratories to develop the computer algorithms so that the machines could “talk” to each other and then be commercialized, as necessary.
A third obstacle—perhaps the most challenging of them all—required engaging government, regulatory, and health care groups.
JDRF worked with researchers, insurance companies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Medicare, and Congress on regulatory and coverage issues. When the first artificial pancreas system came on the market in 2016, the T1D community was more than ready for the life-changing T1D management it offered.
“Seeing the artificial pancreas go from concept to reality, which is helping so many people keep their blood-sugar management in control, is what makes JDRF and all of the advocacy volunteers—who sent an email, made a call, signed an action alert, or met with their Member of Congress—very proud of this historic achievement and the impact that these will have on the individual lives of those with type 1 diabetes,” Cynthia adds.
The Special Diabetes Program (SDP)
In 1997, with the bipartisan leadership of White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congress created the Special Diabetes Program (SDP), which annually allocates $150 million for T1D research at the NIH. JDRF is the chief advocate of the SDP.
The SDP has been instrumental to some of the greatest advancements in the history of T1D—including research that led to artificial pancreas systems and the recent FDA approval of the first-ever drug that can delay onset of T1D, Tzield™ (teplizumab-mzwv).
Since its inception, the SDP has invested $3.4 billion into T1D research. The program’s success and continued renewal is the result in part of hundreds of JDRF advocates meeting with their Members of Congress each year to discuss the importance of the SDP.
“Sustaining bipartisan support to renew again and again in challenging times in Washington is thanks to the amazing volunteer-staff partnership in advocacy,” says Cynthia. “This is now paying enormous dividends, not only in the artificial pancreas systems, but in cures therapies, including disease-modifying and cell therapy treatments.”
JDRF’s Unique Strengths
“JDRF has two strengths that are rare,” says Cynthia. “The first is scientific expertise, convening the best and brightest across fields and generating ideas to solve the biggest problems. The second is community passion, to influence R&D priorities, regulatory pathways, and health care access and enlist government leaders to take action for our cause.”
She adds: “JDRF has harnessed these strengths and organized the community, leading to our higher-level power: Influence.”
“It’s not only possible but realizable for a small band of determined people, starting with our founding moms, to tackle and overcome big obstacles,” says Cynthia. “As long as we organize ourselves well, deploy smart strategies, and develop an advocacy message that people can get around, JDRF will continue to have the impact that has historically been the pillar of our advocacy work.”
“More broadly, strong patient advocacy strengthens our health system and our society and helps align incentives in research, development, and health policy to benefit the people affected by the disease,” says Cynthia. “All of us as leaders should be thinking about what else we can do to help strong, independent patient communities come together and thrive as advocates, which I hope to do when I return to the health sector in 2024 after a sabbatical.”
A Legacy of Women Leaders
JDRF was founded by women, has mostly women staff and volunteers, and counts numerous successful and influential women among its current and past leaders and supporters.
Women who, like Cynthia Rice, share JDRF’s vision for a world without T1D and who will stop at nothing to turn that vision into reality.
“From the majority staff and volunteer base, to our women founders, to our international chair Mary Tyler Moore, to our advocates, fundraisers, and scientists,” says Cynthia, “JDRF, as an organization, shows the power women can have to impact their world.”