Mayo Clinic, U: defeat diabetes within decade

The partnership seeks up to $350 million in public and private funding to research a cure for the disease.

Tara Bannow

The University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic announced Tuesday theyâÄôre seeking between $250 million and $350 million in public and private funding over a 10-year period to research diabetes. By the end of the decade, the goal is to find a cure.

The partnership, which they named Decade of Discovery: A Minnesota Partnership to Defeat Diabetes, is an extension of the state-funded partnership between the two health giants thatâÄôs existed since 2003.

Noting that the state already spends at least $2 billion on the disease each year, representatives from both institutions said theyâÄôll need about 1 percent of that to reach their goal.

“The opportunity is here and itâÄôs here now,” Frank Cerra, dean of the University Medical School, said.

The Legislature has agreed with that sentiment before, and its investments in similar research initiatives continue to pay off, he said. Despite the support, Cerra acknowledged the difficulty.

“Will it be easy?” he said. “I think not.”

Along with academia and the state, the initiative will need support from the private sector, and the next step is to develop a concrete business plan that will attract companies, create jobs and draw in capital.

Cerra, the senior vice president of health sciences for the UniversityâÄôs Academic Health Center, said in the coming years the initiativeâÄôs leaders will work with various companies from the stateâÄôs “growing medical bioscience community” to get them on board.

“WeâÄôre suggesting that if a business plan is put together in the right way and itâÄôs a combination of public resources and private resources that are focused and sustained over a period of time,” he said, “that you can actually make this happen.”

An oversight committee comprised of medical, business and philanthropic leaders will supervise the program and hold it accountable for results, review work plans and provide ongoing advice.

Peter Agre, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will chair the committee, along with Vance Opperman, president and CEO of Key Investment, a private investment company. Opperman also serves on the board of directors for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

At a press conference announcing the initiative, Cerra and Robert Rizza, MayoâÄôs executive dean for research, shied away from responding directly to questions from a small group of journalists about how the Decade of Discovery will be paid for.

“If you hand the numbers to people, they say you canâÄôt do that,” Rizza said in response to a question about how much public and private funding will be needed for the project.

The project will require that the University and Mayo Clinic hire more researchers to study diabetes, although it will be another two to three months before theyâÄôll know how many, Cerra said.

While she wasnâÄôt sure about whether the disease can be cured in 10 years, Elizabeth Seaquist, director of the UniversityâÄôs Center for Diabetes Research, said the research will likely improve the lives of people with diabetes, which needs to happen in the meantime.

While researchers understand the biology of the disease, the initiative will help them transfer that knowledge to the commercial sector, Seaquist said.

“How we get new therapies and cures out into the community is just as important as finding out what those will be,” she said.

The plan is to have all of the researchers from the Center for Diabetes Research involved in the Decade of Discovery program, she said.

Diabetes has been a growing epidemic for more than a decade. More than 269,000 Minnesotans and 24 million Americans suffer from diabetes.

But only recently, the more common type 2 diabetes has been showing up more frequently in younger people, whereas it used to surface only in adults, Seaquist said.

“The last 10 years have been really frightening,” she said, “but in the last five years this global epidemic is just really staggering.”

Cerra said if itâÄôs successful, the initiative would position Minnesota as the “destination state for diabetes.”