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Passion and purpose

Schulze family foundation pledges $40M for cure-focused diabetes research

After Pam Dallmann received an experimental islet cell transplant for diabetes, she felt as though she had walked into someone else’s life. Dallmann was diagnosed at age 6 with type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys all insulin-producing islet beta cells in the pancreas so the body doesn’t produce insulin properly. It can lead to extreme highs and lows in blood sugar levels and potentially life-threatening complications.

When she was in eighth grade, Dallmann’s blood sugar skyrocketed and sent her into a 10-day diabetic coma. As an adult, though she checked her blood sugar levels often, she couldn’t always sense when they were dropping to dangerous levels, and she lost consciousness many times.

And 10 years ago—at age 34—Dallmann lost sight in her right eye.

Then she heard about islet transplant clinical trials under way at the University of Minnesota, and she knew she wanted to participate. In June 2002 Dallmann received an islet cell transplant under the direction of Bernhard Hering, M.D., and she’s been insulin-free since that August.

“It’s like you’re given a different life, and it’s great,” she says. “It’s so great.” Best Buy founder Richard Schulze believes everyone with type 1 diabetes is entitled to that better life. His family’s commitment to curing the disease became public December 11 when the University announced a $40 million pledge for diabetes research from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.

When it was made, the pledge was the second largest in the University’s history and the second largest by an individual or family foundation to diabetes research in the United States. In recognition of the gift, the University has renamed its Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation (DIIT) the Schulze Diabetes Institute.

“This transformative gift enables some of the world’s best minds to aggressively pursue a cure for a disease impacting millions of people worldwide,” says University President Robert Bruininks, Ph.D. “I want to personally thank the Schulze family for their leadership, passion, and generosity.”

A history of success

For decades, University physicians and scientists have been working toward a cure for type 1 diabetes. The first islet cell replacement therapy took place in 1966, when surgeons William D. Kelly, M.D., and Richard C. Lillehei, M.D., Ph.D., performed the world’s first clinical pancreas transplant.

In 1974, Schulze Diabetes Institute director and DIIT founder David Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D., led a team that performed the world’s first human islet cell transplant using cells from a deceased donor. Three years later, his team performed the world’s first islet transplant using cells from a living donor.

Since then, Sutherland, Hering, and others have established the protocol standard for human islet transplantation. In 2008 the University was selected as one of three principal sites in the United States to conduct phase III trials, the final round of study before the Food and Drug Administration determines whether human islet cells can be used as a standard therapy for diabetes.

About 90 percent of patients who have undergone this procedure through clinical trials are now insulin-independent.

Advancing a cure

Through pioneering work at the Schulze Diabetes Institute, the Stem Cell Institute, the Center for Translational Medicine, and other critical University resources, three promising conceptual cures have been identified: human islet transplantation, pig islet transplantation, and stem cell-derived islet cells. The Schulze family’s gift will support research focused on efforts to implement these cures.

Richard Schulze’s daughter Debra has managed her type 1 diabetes with “Herculean” strength for the last 28 years, her father says. But the family envisions a day when the disease can be cured, not just managed.

The family searched nationally and internationally for people who are as passionate as they are about curing diabetes. They wanted to invest their money in the people who could do the most good with it—those who could deliver a cure in the foreseeable future. The Schulzes found those people at the University.

“It was gratifying to know that, at the end of the day, in our own backyard, we had this group of people who were so poised, so passionate about finding a cure,” Richard Schulze says.

One common goal

Not only do the Schulzes believe in the University team’s passion, they also believe in the promise of its work.

Because there’s a limited supply of human islet cells available for transplantation, Hering, scientific director of the Schulze Diabetes Institute, is investigating whether islets from medical-grade pigs, raised by the nonprofit Spring Point Project, could be used for transplants in humans. In 2006 Hering’s team reversed diabetes in nonhuman primates by transplanting islet cells from such pigs.

And because the immunosuppression required with transplants can be challenging, stem-cell scientist Meri Firpo, Ph.D., is working to reprogram adult skin cells into stem cells that can generate islet cells. She’s also using stem cells to study how cells and tissues involved with diabetes develop, in hopes of someday discovering new ways to enable islet cells to regenerate or avoid destruction in the first place.

And they all share one goal.

“Let’s stand up to diabetes and put an end to it,” Hering says. “Let’s give those we love freedom to be who they are without the constant fear of what will happen next…. Let’s give them back their lives.”

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