The debilitating, often deadly disease of type 1 diabetes mellitus still has not been conquered. But 40 years ago, because seven forward-looking patients volunteered to be injected with tiny clusters of cells from donated pancreases, University of Minnesota scientists took a huge step toward taming diabetes.
Discover what’s possible. Browse these features to find out more about the impact of University of Minnesota research, education, and care—and how you can help.
For decades, researchers have focused much of their energy on minimizing the impact of diabetes. Because people with diabetes do not have functioning pancreas islet cells--essential for producing the insulin our bodies need--physicians and scientists have found ways to help them manage their blood sugar levels through lifestyle changes, medications, and insulin injections.
But Jakub Tolar, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, wants to think much bigger. He doesn't just want to make it easier for patients to live with their diabetes; he wants to cure them of it.
He has toured 47 states and 23 countries to increase awareness of cystic fibrosis (CF)--a genetic disorder that causes mucus to build up and clog some organs of the body, primarily the lungs--and he gets hugs everywhere he goes. This furry advocate is Burke P. Bear, a cuddly teddy bear named in honor of Burke P. Derr, who died two days before his 19th birthday in 1997 from complications of CF.
Research collaborators working with the University of Minnesota and University of Arizona embarked on a unique experiment in August. A donor pancreas, chaperoned by a graduate student, was fl own by commercial jet from Minneapolis to Tucson, Arizona. The goal: to see if a new organ preservation technique could extend the life of the donor pancreas. It did.
The University of Minnesota recently performed its 8,000th kidney transplant-which coincided with the 50-year anniversary of Minnesota’s fi rstever kidney transplant, also performed at the U of M. In the past half century, the University has established its place as a world leader in solid organ transplant.
He has toured 47 states and 23 countries to increase awareness of cystic fibrosis, and he gets hugs everywhere he goes. This furry advocate is Burke P. Bear, a cuddly teddy bear named in honor of Burke P. Derr, who died two days before his 19th birthday in 1997 from complications of CF. Today Burke's memory lives on through the work of his father, Bob Derr, for Pennsylvania Cystic Fibrosis, Inc., and the researchers it supports, including Antoinette Moran, M.D., at the University of Minnesota.
Sociologist Melissa Walls, Ph.D., wants to make something clear: She’s not the story behind the $2.8 million National Institutes of Health research grant that she, a Medical School, Duluth colleague, and two other researchers were awarded last fall.
The story, as she sees it, is about adults her team will be working with to examine the ties between stress and type 2 diabetes among Native Americans — the population with the highest diabetes rate in the world.
Pastor Constance “Connie” Olson worked 70-hour weeks, tending to the needs—spiritual and otherwise—of her congregation. She was also a type 1 diabetic, suff ering from hypoglycemic unawareness. This complication meant that she didn’t experience early warning signs of dangerously low blood sugar—such as sweating, dizziness, and extreme hunger—causing her to unexpectedly have seizures and lose consciousness.
Siobhan O’Brien Olson grew up understanding the importance of community giving. In fact, her family’s Alice M. O’Brien Foundation has been supporting numerous charities in Minnesota for 60 years. Nearly eight years ago, the foundation established the O’Brien BioBank for lung research at the University of Minnesota—just one of numerous gifts the foundation has made to support medical research at the University.
Diabetes never takes a break.
For people living with type 1 diabetes, the task of monitoring blood glucose levels an administering insulin is always at the forefront of their minds. It’s something they must do multiple times a day, every day.
But University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic scientists are working together to build an artificial pancreas that would eliminate this burden.
University of Minnesota transplant surgeon David E. R. Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D., received the 2012 Medawar Prize in July at the 24th International Congress of the Transplantation Society in Berlin, Germany. The award is considered the world’s highest recognition for contributions to the field of transplantation.
It wasn’t love at first sight when Rudy Dankwort met his future wife, Kathryn. She was 7 and he was a teen. Kathryn was his best friend’s little sister. But the two fell in love 11 years later and married, beginning a 37-year union that lasted until her death in 2009.
Although Kathryn Dankwort died shortly after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, she had endured type 1 diabetes since she was 12 years old.
It has been more than a decade since evidence first emerged linking diabetes to cancer, and what doctors have learned so far is grim: Diabetics are twice as likely to get cancer of the liver, uterus, and pancreas, and they are 20 to 50 percent more likely to develop colon and breast cancer. Women who have breast cancer are almost 50 percent more likely to die if they also have diabetes.
"There's definitely a proven connection between diabetes and cancer," says David Potter, M.D., Ph.D., a breast cancer physician and member of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. "But even though we've learned a lot, there's much more work to be done to get us to workable solutions to reduce cancer risk for diabetic patients."
Elizabeth Seaquist, M.D., fell in love with the lab almost 40 years ago. She got her first taste of research working for four summers at the University of Minnesota on a paid fellowship from the American Heart Association.
Those paid fellowships are so rare now, Seaquist says, which is why she feels privileged to return the favor to students today using philanthropic funding from the Pennock Family Land Grant Chair in Diabetes Research, which she has held since 2002.
Elizabeth Seaquist, M.D., chose her career path as a young girl while reading the book series about nurse Sue Barton. "I knew when I read them," she says with a laugh, "that I wanted to be the doctor."
So when the Minneapolis Public Schools alumna didn't get top grades at Vassar College and was subsequently rejected by medical schools everywhere—two years in a row—she was mentally and emotionally preparing to move on.
Scientist Meri Firpo, Ph.D., spends countless hours in her University of Minnesota lab intensely focused on stem cell research that could lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes.
But sometimes, she says, it’s the ideas that arise outside of the lab—after work—that provide a fresh perspective on research questions and, ultimately, lead to new discoveries.
One of Firpo’s latest diabetes research projects started with a conversation she had at a grad student recruiting party. Thanks to that chat, Firpo and University cancer biologist Anindya Bagchi, Ph.D., are teaming up to find a way to protect insulin-producing beta (or islet) cells—the ones damaged in diabetes.
In the wild, lions rely on their prides—communities in the animal kingdom—for protection, food, and other types of support. Members of Minnesota Lions clubs foster a similar sense of community by committing to causes that help others, such as cure-focused diabetes research.
The Minnesota Lions Diabetes Foundation, Inc. awarded a $50,000 grant last fall to University of Minnesota scientists, expanding the group’s commitment to diabetes research—specifically homing in on the study of kidney disease linked to type 2 diabetes.
The Decade of Discovery, a major initiative of the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, has hired an executive director and awarded three research grants totaling $1.86 million to bring the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic closer to the initiative’s goal: finding a cure for diabetes.
If you would like to support groundbreaking research at the University of Minnesota and also receive steady income for life, a charitable gift annuity may be right for you. Through a simple contract, you agree to make a donation of cash, stocks, or other assets to the Minnesota Medical Foundation. In return, we agree to pay you a fixed amount each year for the rest of your life.
Mark your calendar for Golf Classic on Monday, June 18 at Town & Country Club in St. Paul.
This event benefits cure-focused type 1 diabetes research at the University of Minnesota’s Schulze Diabetes Institute. Since its inception in 1996, Golf Classic and related efforts have raised nearly $5 million.
Mark your calendar for a University of Minnesota diabetes research update on Monday, March 19 at 7 p.m. at Peace Lutheran Church, 8600 East Bush Lake Road in Bloomington, Minn. The event will feature guest speaker Melena Bellin, M.D., a University of Minnesota pediatric endocrinology fellow and physician, who will discuss leading cure-focused diabetes research.
The Dayton and Hegman families understand that living with diabetes is a constant struggle. Edward "Ned" Dayton and his wife, Sherry Ann, have helped their son Michael manage his type 1 diabetes since his childhood. He is now 43. And Jackie Hegman and her husband, Mark, have contended with her type 2 diabetes for more than 20 years. The Daytons and Hegmans also understand that when you're in a tough spot, you need powerful allies.
Peripheral neuropathy, a painful nerve disorder that causes numbness in the hands and feet, often accompanies such diseases as cancer, AIDS, and diabetes. In fact, at least half of all people who have diabetes will eventually develop some form of neuropathy.
University of Minnesota neurologist William Kennedy, M.D., M.S., has been studying ways to diagnose and grade neuropathy for more than 40 years. Along the way, he has often been stymied when trying to assess whether a person's neuropathy was improving or deteriorating.
It’s a vicious circle: The more resistant your body is to insulin, the higher your blood sugar goes. The higher your blood sugar, the more insulin your pancreas secretes. Left unchecked, high insulin levels result in your body’s inability to compensate for elevated blood sugars, the failure of pancreatic islets, and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes. Those who are obese—30 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are at an especially high risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes has quickly become a global epidemic and the leading cause of cardiovascular disease, blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy, and amputations. The World Health Organization estimates that 220 million people have diabetes and that related deaths will double by 2030. To combat this threat, scientists from the University’s Schulze Diabetes Institute (SDI) are leading the way in developing a cure for type 1 diabetes and expanding the availability of the most promising treatments.
University of Minnesota researchers have developed a new method for creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which can differentiate into many different types of the cells in the body and are used in medical research focused on diabetes, cancer, and many other diseases. This new process will dramatically speed up the creation of iPS cells and improve their quality, which could accelerate the treatment of many otherwise incurable diseases.
Islet transplants are curing diabetes, but they are not widely used, in part because the immunosuppressant drugs recipients must take have toxic side effects. Crucial research to solve the shortcomings of immunosuppression is under way at the Schulze Diabetes Institute, but more work is needed. That's why the University of Minnesota recently launched an immunology initiative aimed at addressing these issues.
Eight-year-old Reid McCants doesn't really seem to mind being in a hospital bed. He's holding a stack of Pokémon cards in his left hand and clicking the TV remote in his right. When asked to show off the new hole in his smile where a tooth had been until a few days ago, he grins broadly. But this Des Moines, Iowa, second-grader isn't visiting University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital for fun and games. Reid is enrolled in a TrialNet clinical study aimed at advancing type 1 diabetes research and helping kids like him beat the disease.
Eager to support his wife as well as friends who had diabetes, Pete Rockers began volunteering with the University of Minnesota's Golf Classic "fore" Diabetes Research when it started in 1997. Since then, Rockers' involvement in the University's diabetes research has only intensified. His wife, Sue, has type 1 diabetes and received treatment at the University decades ago, before the family moved to the east and west coasts and later returned to Minnesota. Rockers says that watching his wife live with diabetes prompted him to get more involved in supporting research for a cure. "You have to be a strong person to deal with [diabetes]," he says. "It never takes a break."
Pioneering research by University of Minnesota diabetes and stem cell expert Meri Firpo, Ph.D., is giving hope to millions of people with diabetes by bringing scientists closer to finding a cure. An assistant professor in the University's Stem Cell Institute and Schulze Diabetes Institute, Firpo is one of the first scientists in the world to produce a special kind of stem cell from a reprogrammed skin cell.
The TrialNet study of the anti-inflammatory drug Canakinumab began last fall. Ultimately, the study will include 66 newly diagnosed diabetes patients aged 6 to 45. For this study's protocol; overseen by an Institutional Review Board; newly diagnosed patients receive monthly subcutaneous injections the first year, quarterly checkups the second year, and twice-yearly visits the final two years.
Michelle Schlehuber and daughter Caroline voluntarily donated skin cells to a Schulze Diabetes Institute research project on a recent visit to the University. As part of the project, Meri Firpo, Ph.D., is taking donated skin cells from diabetics and non-diabetics, reprogramming them back into unspecified stem cells, which she then turns into insulin-producing islet cells. Firpo transplants the reprogrammed skin cells into diabetic mice to see if the cells can function as insulin-producing islets. She hopes to determine whether the treatment is a viable option for humans, as a way to use patient’s own cells or human donor cells to cure diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes, whose bodies are unable to regulate glucose levels, are significantly more likely to get heart disease than people who don't have diabetes. So Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., director of the program in translational cardiovascular genomics at the University of Minnesota, hopes that her research focused on identifying what predisposes a person to type 2 diabetes also may shed light on what factors lead to heart disease.
Ten years ago, the University performed a successful islet cell transplant on Lorna Zaworski to treat type 1 diabetes as part of a clinical trial. Today, Zaworski remains insulin independent—demonstrating that islet cell transplants can offer a cure. Islet cells, which are located in the pancreas, are the body’s only cells that produce insulin. The body mistakenly destroys them during the onset of diabetes.
Martha Vetter’s stepson, Hans ("Hansie"), has battled type 1 diabetes since age 8. Although he was always a strong, athletic kid, Vetter says it was tough to see him struggle to manage his diabetes. Vetter says Hansie, now 23, found diabetes especially challenging as a teenager, when he was enjoying life as a high school football player. "He wanted to be just one of the guys," she says, not burdened by testing his blood sugar and watching his diet. "It’s made us so aware of the need to find a cure."
Friends are surprised when Joanie Videen, 54, says it is sleep, not food, that has put her over the moon about her pancreas transplant in July. "It’s the best gift I've ever had," she says. "I can sleep all night."
While Videen has dealt with diabetes for nearly 20 years, for the past decade she experienced hypoglycemia unawareness, meaning she had none of the warning symptoms that help diabetics recognize when their blood glucose level falls too low.