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Changing the game

Meredith and Tom Olson created a diabetes research fund in memory of Tom’s sister Carol in 2004 and have since watched as University investigators made significant strides toward a cure.

Gifts in sister’s memory propel type 1 diabetes research

When Tom Olson’s younger sister, Carol, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 19, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “I had heard of diabetes, but I just didn’t know what that meant,” he recalls.

But over the next two decades of Carol’s life, the entire Olson family learned the hard way. At first, Carol had some of the more typical complications, but they became more serious by the time she reached her mid-30s.

She suffered extreme highs and lows in blood sugar, passing out frequently. She developed neuropathy, once burning her leg on a motorcycle ride without realizing it. Then Carol’s kidneys failed, requiring her to undergo dialysis three times every week.

That is when Tom, a University of Minnesota alumnus, brought Carol to the University to see renowned transplant surgeon David Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D. Tom had hoped to donate a kidney to his sister, but he wasn’t a suitable match.

Then in September of 1995, Carol Olson died in her sleep. She was 42 years old.

“Her life had become so difficult,” Tom says. “She tried very hard to control her diabetes, but for the last six to eight months, it was almost uncontrollable.”

Taking action

Over the next several years, Tom considered how he could best honor his sister. In 2004 he and his wife, Meredith, returned to the University to learn more about the Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation—now the Schulze Diabetes Institute (SDI)—to which Sutherland had introduced Tom in the 1990s.

After talking more with Sutherland and his SDI colleague Bernhard Hering, M.D., about their greatest research needs, the Olsons decided to establish the Carol Olson Memorial Diabetes Research Fund with a significant gift.

“We decided research for the cure was the way to go,” Tom says.

Since then, the Olsons have continued their philanthropy with annual gifts to the fund for both research and to establish a key position in the SDI.

And in January, Tom’s 30-year-old son, Chad Olson, made his first gift to the fund in his aunt’s memory. He and his younger sister, Kendall, spent lots of time with Carol as they were growing up.

“We’re a close-knit family,” Chad says. “My thought is, going forward, that I want to help out any way I can. It’s just getting us that much closer to a cure.”

‘It’s going to happen’

Since the Olsons’ first gift to the Carol Olson Memorial Diabetes Research Fund in 2004, SDI physician-scientists have refined the technique for isolating insulin-producing islet cells from a single donor pancreas to treat one patient (previously, more than one donor pancreas was needed per patient), reversed type 1 diabetes in monkeys using islet cells from pigs, and become one of only seven sites nationally to participate in a clinical trial to determine whether human islet transplantation should be an FDA-approved treatment for difficult-to-manage cases.

It’s been exciting for the Olsons to see the University make such strides. And it got even more exciting, Tom says, when scientists here started talking about a cure for type 1 diabetes.

“Before that, it was almost like you didn’t dare utter the word,” says Tom, who currently serves on the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s board of trustees and is slated to become its chair in the fall. “It all of a sudden changed the game.”

Now he’s looking forward to the day when University researchers announce that they’ve developed the cure for type 1 diabetes and that it’s ready for patients.

“First of all, it is going to happen. And it is going to happen here,” Tom says. “It’s hard to imagine that any place else in the world has all the pieces in place like we do.”

By Nicole Endres

To support diabetes research at the University, contact Jean Gorell at 612-625-0497 or j.gorell@mmf.umn.edu, or visit www.mmf.umn.edu/diabetes.

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