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Sanford Health announces it will focus research effort on juvenile diabetes

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T. Denny Sanford
South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $400 million dollars to support a new research facility that will focus its efforts on curing juvenile diabetes.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

It's called The Sanford Project, and the goal is to cure type one diabetes through beta cell regeneration.  

Juvenile diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks and destroys insulin producing cells.  

Beta Cell research is one of the fastest growing areas of diabetes research.  Dick Insel, director of research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, says the goal of beta cell regeneration is simple.

"In essence, to trigger the body to heal itself," Insel explains.  "To regrow these insulin-producing beta cells that have been killed off by type one diabetes."

Dr. Fred Levine
Dr. Fred Levine, director of Sanford Children's Research Center, works in partnership with the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, California. It's a company already working on diabetes research.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Juvenile diabetes strikes one in every 400 children.  

Insel says the number of new cases in the U.S.  increases by four percent every year.  

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation will not only partner with the Sanford Project, they came to the Sioux Falls organization asking that juvenile diabetes be the focus of Sanford's research.  

People with diabetes must manage what they eat, how much they exercise and check their blood level several times a day.

Type two diabetes is more common in adults and is often a result of obesity.  

Kelby Krabbenhoft
Kelby Krabbenhoft is president and CEO of Sanford Health.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

According to diabetes researcher and director of Sanford Children's Research Center Fred Levine, it's likely the research in beta cells will have an impact in how diabetes is treated in general

"In my previous visits to South Dakota, I've learned that type two diabetes is epidemic even among children in the Native American population of your state," he says. "Thus, through the efforts of the Sanford Project, we hope to have a positive impact on those individuals as well as the children with type one diabetes."

Sanford Health will invest $30 million in the research project over the next seven years.  

They will construct a new research lab and recruit top flight scientists to Sioux Falls.  

Fred Levine will coordinate the efforts.  He says scientists from all around the world will be able to share research information. 

The plans
The plans for Sanford Health's new research facility are becoming reality. A big part of the next step was the announcement that research efforts will focus primarily on juvenile diabetes.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"All working in a coordinated way on developing an improved understanding of the process of beta cell formation and as well as the immune response to beta cells as it occurs in type one diabetes," he says.

The goal, Levine ways, is to come up with new treatment.  That could be medication.  

He's not sure whether cure is the right word to use, but he says they do plan to help children with diabetes no longer have to worry about it.

"Whether we're going to get there in the next few years or not, I don't know," Levine says.  "What I can guarantee is that we will continue to move the bar towards the point where individuals with diabetes live a more and more normal life."

Levine says the Sanford Project will coordinate research discoveries and apply them toward clinical practices.

For some observers, curing a disease is not what Sanford Health should be targeting.  

Cure is a word Gary Schwitzer says is about marketing not medicine.  Schwitzer, director of the University of Minnesota health journalism program, was unaware of The Sanford Project.  

While he'll never question philanthropy and the need for research funding, Schwitzer says the public must engage in a conversation about what's happening.

"When a private entity enters into a research project with goals like these, I think these are vital questions for us to ask and for us to drop back and have the broader discussion," he says.  "What's the national research agenda? Where are the dollars coming from? Should we care about that?"    

But funding for research is declining and scientists rely more and more on private dollars.  

The Sanford Project is joining forces with reputable research organizations like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California.  

The other diseases being considered for the project were lupus, cancers caused by the human papillomavirus or HPV, and multiple sclerosis.