Cyclists pedal for diabetes awareness

by Craig Gustafson

It was no coincidence that a national bike tour raising money for diabetes research made a stop Monday at the University, a pioneer in the field of diabetes and pancreas transplantation for more than 30 years.
The tour, “Fast Track to a Cure,” began its Minneapolis leg in Minnehaha Park, tracing the banks of the Mississippi River to East River Flats Park behind Fairview-University Medical Center.
Members of the University cycling team and even the director of the University’s Diabetes Institute of Immunology and Transplantation, Dr. David Sutherland, completed the afternoon ride.
The Insulin-Free World Foundation sponsored the event.
Among the cyclists was Sam Packard, a 21-year-old University student who was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago.
“I’m for anything that is good for diabetes,” he said. “Anything to improve the quality of life.”
Deb Butterfield, director of The Insulin-Free World Foundation, said the goal was to create national awareness about diabetes and raise money for leading researchers.
The University was an important stop for the tour because of its strong history of diabetes research, including the world’s first pancreas transplant in 1966 and a new experimental treatment currently being tested.
Last November, University physicians conducted their 1,000th pancreas transplant and have done more than 100 since then. That equates to more than 10 percent of the total pancreas transplants done in the world.
Butterfield was a recipient of one of those transplants.
“I was just eating a doughnut,” she said. “Five years ago, I couldn’t have done that.”
Prior to her operation, Butterfield suffered from diabetes for 24 years.
“I had a heart attack, kidney failure, eye hemorrhaging and wore leg braces,” she said.
Nowadays, the effects are reversing. Braces are no longer needed, just a sturdy cane.
For the past 25 years, doctors nationwide have handled diabetes with much the same treatment Butterfield received. University doctors, however, are leading the way again with an experimental technique that would reduce treatment to a simple injection.
It is a process called islet cell transplantation, where insulin-producing cells are extracted from a pancreas, manipulated and then injected into a diabetic.
The procedure is expensive, roughly $60,000, and the success rate is only 10 percent, but the doctors said they expect to increase that percentage steadily in the next few years.
A pancreas transplant has an 85 percent success rate, but the islet cell procedure would not require surgery.
The money raised by the tour would go in part to such experimental procedures like the islet cell transplantation.
The bike tour began Aug. 14 in San Diego and will end Oct. 10 at the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
Corporations from across the country have pledged to make donations toward diabetes research for every mile the bicyclists trek.
The significance of the tour was not lost on the participants.
Brian Fujioka, president of the University cycling team, said that he works in the diabetes institute as a lab technician and has seen first-hand the effects of diabetes.
“Millions of people suffer from diabetes,” he said. “More than HIV/ AIDS and breast cancer put together.”
The tour ended with a reception at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at 6 p.m. Speakers included Sutherland and Dr. Bernhard Hering, head of the institute’s islet transplantation program.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.