Pat Lyon has frightening memories of diabetes from her youth and her work as a nurse decades ago. “It was an early death sentence when I was working,” she says, adding that diabetes caused her aunt’s husband to lose both of his legs.
In 1990, Pat’s daughter, Cathy Myers-Korus, then 29, went to her doctor when she experienced blurred vision and extreme thirst. “She called me crying and said, ‘Mom, I have diabetes,’” Pat recalls. “She was just devastated.”
Nearly 10 years later, Cathy noticed symptoms of diabetes in her brother, Steve, who was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes.
“I worried a lot,” Pat says of her children’s battle with type 1 diabetes. “I was surprised, because we never had a family history of diabetes.”
Choosing to turn her worry into action, in 2009 she pledged her retirement plan to support diabetes research at the University of Minnesota’s Schulze Diabetes Institute (SDI), where researchers are focused on promising ways to cure type 1 diabetes.
In diabetes, the body’s T-cells attack and destroy insulin-producing cells, causing the disease. SDI researchers are finding a way to create new islet cells or replace those that have been destroyed. “I want to do whatever I can to help,” Pat says. “I have always had a lot of faith in the work done at the University.”
But Pat’s resolve to fight diabetes didn’t stop with her planned gift.
She and Cathy are both active supporters of the University’s Golf Classic “fore” Diabetes Research golf tournament, which takes place each June and has raised nearly $4 million for diabetes research at the University.
In December, Pat and three of her children— Cathy, Steve, and Jim—donated skin cells for diabetes research at the University. Meri Firpo, Ph.D., an SDI and Stem Cell Institute research scientist, is taking voluntarily donated skin cells and culturing them in the lab, wiping the cells clean, and reprogramming them back into unspecified stem cells, which she is able to turn into insulin-producing islet cells.
She is currently transplanting the reprogrammed skin cells into diabetic mice to see if the cells can function as insulin-producing islets. Next, she hopes to determine whether the treatment is a viable option for humans. “We want to see if we can transplant [the reprogrammed cells] into patients,” Firpo says. “One of the goals is to use patients’ own cells to cure their disease.”
“It’s amazing how far they have come in their research. It’s really impressive,” says Cathy. “I think a cure is on the horizon. And although it may not save your family member, it could save somebody in the future.”