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Searching for a cure

“Any child with diabetes today has a realistic chance of seeing some form of treatment that completely or substantially reverses the disease in his or her lifetime.”

Dr. Raghu Mirmira, director of the Pediatric Diabetes Research Group at Riley Hospital for Children, can confidently make this statement. He’s an award-winning physician-scientist who has long been involved in reprogramming cells to create insulin a diabetic can’t produce.
This area of research is so promising that it’s become overcrowded, prompting Dr. Mirmira to move to the next step.

“Once we can reprogram a cell to create insulin, what will protect it from the destructive process that goes on with diabetes?” he asks. “How can we protect that cell from being destroyed just like the original cell was? That’s what we’re looking into.”

This flexibility was part of the allure when he accepted the position at Riley in 2008.
“I felt the commitment and opportunity here to build something around my vision,” Dr. Mirmira says. “And it didn’t hurt that I was raised in the Midwest.”

Part of his vision is to persuade people to view all abnormal blood sugar conditions as part of a continuum.

“Even if someone has an abnormal blood sugar that doesn’t define itself as diabetes, that’s a disease,” he says. “If you have higher-than-normal blood sugar, you’re at risk for really bad diseases.”

Curing diabetes makes sense for more than the nearly 24 million U.S. children and adults with the disease.

“If you look at the dollars spent on diabetes – $170 billion in the U.S. in 2007 alone – it puts a greater burden on society to support lifelong therapies,” Dr. Mirmira says.

In his experience, private donations are imperative in the search for a cure since agencies like the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health fund only mature projects with definitive outcomes.

Philanthropy also played a significant role in bringing Dr. Mirmira and his team to Riley. Gifts to The Luke Bracken Wiese Fund for Juvenile Diabetes Research along with financial support from the Lilly Foundation and Lilly Endowment Inc. served as a catalyst for Dr. Mirmira’s recruitment.

“Donor support is the single most important avenue of funding we’ve got to be able to take a great idea and turn it into a sure thing,” Dr. Mirmira says with feeling. “There’s no guarantee, but we always learn something so we never waste our time.”