University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic researchers launched a major research initiative Tuesday to treat, and ultimately cure, diabetes. The partnership's goal is to make Minnesota a destination for diabetes prevention and treatment innovation.
To succeed, they say they'll need at least $250 million dollars over 10 years.
The U of M and Mayo Clinic partnership considered other diseases they could tackle, including heart failure and Alzheimer's. They settled on diabetes because they say the state spends a jaw-dropping $2.7 billion a year treating the disease, through programs like Medicaid and MinnesotaCare.
Researchers also believe they are on the verge of figuring out much better ways to treat diabetes.
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Some recent, key discoveries have helped scientists understand the mechanisms that cause diabetes. Those discoveries may mean that researchers can move away from treatments that require transplanting insulin-producing cells from donors into patients.
Robert Rizza, dean of research at Mayo, said new therapies could focus instead on helping diabetics preserve their own insulin-producing cells.
"If you can stop them from dying, you'll cure diabetes," said Rizza. "And if you can actually understand what makes them grow, there's reasons why we have some pretty good ideas how that could be done."
"It's happening here in the middle of the device industry, in the middle of the cereal industries, in the middle of Minnesota agriculture."
An oversight committee has been formed to develop a work plan for the diabetes initiative and to help recruit investors to the project. They will look to the state and federal government, as well as private businesses.
Dr. Peter Agre co-chairs the committee. The former Minnesotan won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003, for his discovery of proteins that move water molecules through cell membranes.
Agre said Minnesota could expect a significant return on its investment if the state deploys its resources toward conquering this disease.
"It's not like this is money that could be well-spent if these treatments were unnecessary. This is amputations. Reducing the rate of blindness that's ongoing. If we could slow this down, it would pay for itself. That's not an economic promise. But in fact, it's a reality," said Agre.
The prospect of saving money might be a hard sell at the state Legislature, which is grappling with a budget deficit.
Dr. Frank Cerra, dean of the U of M Medical School, said committee members will work hard to explain the economic potential of the project, including the new research positions it would create and the new biotech businesses it could spawn.
"It's happening here in the middle of the device industry, in the middle of the cereal industries, in the middle of Minnesota agriculture, in the middle of a very innovative and creative state, that's always been on the forefront of health care and is again today," said Cerra.
Some private sector funders have already expressed interest in the initiative. But Cerra said their support is probably dependent on whether the state and federal government invest in the project.