The Lions Clubs International, one of the world’s largest service groups, is widely known for its commitment to preventing blindness—a mission its Minnesota clubs have embraced through a 50-year partnership with the University of Minnesota. Less well-known is a newer relationship that’s blossoming as well. For the last 12 years, the Minnesota Lions have supported the University’s Schulze Diabetes Institute (SDI), a world leader in cure-focused type 1 diabetes research.
“Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness for people under 60,” says Larry Winner, a member of the Duluth Lions Club who was chair of the club’s diabetes committee when the partnership was formed. “I thought it would make sense for the Lions to get involved in finding a cure for diabetes.”
Since then, the Minnesota Lions’ support for University diabetes research has taken off. “We see the University of Minnesota as one of the leading research institutions in the world in [diabetes] programs,” Winner says. To date, more than 100 different Minnesota Lions Clubs have contributed to University diabetes research focused on human islet-cell transplantation.
In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system causes T-cells to destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. As a result, the body cannot regulate glucose levels, leading to numerous, and sometimes life-threatening, complications. In islet-cell transplantation, islets are taken from a donor pancreas and transplanted into diabetic patients, restoring insulin production in the body.
Nearly 90 percent of transplant patients who have undergone an islet transplant as part of an SDI clinical trial are now insulin-independent. But because of the severe shortage of donor organs that provide the islet cells, SDI researchers are also working to reverse diabetes in animal models of the disease using pig islet cells. Those cells are provided by another University partner known as the SpringPoint Project—a group that raises medical-grade pigs for islet transplantation.
Patient stories and information about the latest SDI research developments and clinical trials spurred the Lions to act. “I found it very exciting that there was potentially a cure for diabetes,” says Winner, a University alumnus.
Eager to harness that excitement, Winner and other Lions went on the road, speaking to different Lion districts about the University’s research. “It was kind of overwhelming and exciting. We started with one club, and now it’s being supported throughout Minnesota and in Canada,” he says of the ongoing effort.
The Lions’ many fundraising activities include the group’s legendary pancake days and golf benefits. Additionally, the new Minnesota Lions Diabetes Foundation has awarded multiple grants to SDI and sponsors diabetes prevention activities. Cumulatively, Winner says, the Minnesota Lions have also contributed more than $125,000 to University diabetes research through the SpringPoint Project.
Winner, who now serves as the Schulze Diabetes Institute chair for the Multiple District 5M Lions group, which spans Minnesota and large parts of Canada, says the opportunity to make a difference for people with diabetes continues to inspire him. “It is my hope that this Lions support of University diabetes research, which began with the Duluth Lions Club, will one day gain the support of the international network of Lions clubs and lead to a worldwide cure for diabetes,” says Winner.