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A $50 Million Dollar Gift to Target a Type 1 Cure: What Does it Mean for the Community?

We heard big news in the world of diabetes research last week – The City of Hope, a prominent medical research and care center in southern California, received a gift of $50 million (!) to establish the Wanek Family Project to Cure Type 1 Diabetes.

The gift was a contribution from the Wanek family, of the Ashley home furniture brand, along with a number of anonymous partner donors. City of Hope has declared an ambitious goal – a cure for type 1 diabetes within 6 years. The announcement has been met with optimism, skepticism, and everything in between. Personally, I’d like to reflect on what this announcement might mean to the field and to people with diabetes.

One of the first things to consider is what, exactly, a “cure” for type 1 diabetes means. It’s important to recognize that City of Hope’s goal shouldn’t have us anticipating a pill or procedure that can make type 1 a thing of the past anytime soon – definitely not within six years across a global population! Billions of dollars have been spent on diabetes research, and to great effect (many people with diabetes, including me, wouldn’t be alive without that work), but we haven’t found anything close to a fix-all. It’s highly optimistic to imagine that this gift, as important and substantial as it is, will produce a silver-bullet “cure.” Even if it did, it would be years before it was deemed safe enough for clinical use. It’s important that this major announcement not be a source of false hope for people with diabetes and their loved ones.

Dr. Bart Roep, director of the Wanek Family Project, did make sure to point out that a “cure” can mean a variety of different things to different people. For some, independence from daily insulin would certainly represent a functional cure, as would prevention of diabetes complications including hypoglycemia. It would, of course, be extremely powerful if City of Hope’s research could help us progress in these directions. Even so – neither of those milestones could possibly be reached within six years. Trials on the prevention of complications often take a long time in and of themselves, even once the intervention is found.

Regardless, I think the establishment of the Wanek Family Project is worth shouting about for two reasons. First, even if the project doesn’t deliver a cure on its own, there is tremendous value in cure-focused research. And, as of last week, there’s another $50 million there! City of Hope will be investigating the very basis of type 1 diabetes, trying to figure out precisely why and how it happens, targeting the underlying causes alongside the complications that follow.

Second – and I would argue more importantly – this gift is large, and it is dedicated specifically to type 1 diabetes research on the cure. According to City of Hope, at $50 million dollars, it ranks as one of the 50 largest medical gifts in all of 2016! It’s the second largest gift that City of Hope has ever received. And, as far as I know, it’s one of the largest single donations ever given anywhere for type 1 diabetes research. City of Hope does leading research not only in diabetes but also in the areas including HIV/AIDS, stem cell therapies, and, most notably, cancer. City of Hope has an important history in diabetes research as well! Several major advancements have been made there, including the development of bacterially-produced synthetic insulin by Drs. Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura. (Dr. Riggs, the “father of synthetic insulin,” spoke at the announcement of the Wanek Family Project.) Despite this incredible research, City of Hope’s incredible cancer research center has dominated the spotlight, leaving the diabetes research center mostly in the shadows. It is inspiring to know that an organization that has done such meaningful research in multiple major disease areas will now dedicate so much effort to diabetes.

I profoundly hope that the announcement of the Wanek Family Project doesn’t serve as a source of false hope that diabetes is soon to be a disease of the past. Nonetheless, I do think the project should foster a real optimism that more people are recognizing that diabetes deserves real focus, and commitment, and research.