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'A game-changer'

Dave Olson and Siobhan O'Brien Olson

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.

But it is the foundation’s latest gift of $15,000 to support diabetes research at the University that’s top of mind for O’Brien Olson and her husband, Dave Olson. “Diabetes affects every side of our family in some way, shape, or form,” says O’Brien Olson. “When we heard about the artificial pancreas project [featured in the last issue of Discoveries in Diabetes], we thought it could really be a game-changer.”

Diagnosed at age 17 with type 1 diabetes, Dave Olson appreciates the project’s research potential. A few years ago, when adding a continuous glucose monitoring system to his insulin pump, he asked how the system and the pump communicate and was surprised to learn that the pump did not take in that glucose information to automatically adjust the insulin dose.

That could all change with the creation of an artificial pancreas that uses a wireless sensor being developed by Steven Koester, Ph.D., a professor in the University’s electrical engineering department. The monitor, which is still in the design phase, senses glucose levels and sends that information to the pump, which automatically supplies the correct amount of insulin.

A call for proposals from the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics—a collaboration of the University and Mayo Clinic—sparked Koester’s search for potential research partners at Mayo. There he found Yogish Kudva, M.B.B.S., and Ananda Basu, M.B.B.S., M.D., who were building an artificial pancreas but had run into sensor issues.

“In talking together,” Koester says, “we realized they had a sensor problem my idea could potentially solve.” Since then, the trio has made impressive progress, but they have more work ahead and need additional support.

This project is buoyed by the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics’ statewide campaign to prevent, treat, and cure diabetes—called Decade of Discovery. But Koester says that private philanthropy remains critical, and he’s grateful for the generosity of donors like the Alice M. O’Brien Foundation, “It’s vital to sustain this project as we gather data and write proposals,” he adds.

The Olsons hope the breakthrough comes soon. “It seems like a natural next step, and I think they’re very close,” says Dave Olson. “This technology will go a long way toward substantially improving the lives of those of us who live each day with diabetes. It is a very exciting and real step forward in diabetes management.”

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