Best Buy founder gives U $40 million

The gift, the second-largest donation in the university's history, could be a shot in the arm toward finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

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Best Buy Founder and CEO Richard Schulze

Photo: Greg Gilbert, Special to the Star Tribune

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Best Buy founder Richard Schulze and his family foundation will give $40 million to University of Minnesota researchers who are intent on finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes, the university announced Thursday.

The money, the second largest gift in university history, will be paid over five years and provide about half the $20 million the university will spend annually on diabetes research. Officials said they hope it will provide the financial boost needed to defeat the disease.

"We must not settle for anything less than a cure," said Dr. Bernhard Hering, who will head the project. "We only need to declare it possible."

Schulze and his daughter, Debra Schulze, 40, who has had Type 1 diabetes for 28 years, said they chose the university's program over a number of other research organizations, both public and private, after studying programs around the world. They chose the university because it seemed to be closest to finding a cure and was less focused on finding new treatments for symptoms, she said.

As many as 3 million people in the United States live with Type 1 diabetes, in which the immune system attacks islet cells in the pancreas, destroying the body's ability to produce insulin and regulate blood sugar.

"They are approaching it from all different angles," she said of the university. "It's the best of all worlds."

The family has also provided major gifts for cancer research in memory of Schulze's first wife, Sandra, who died eight years ago of cancer. In 2000 it gave a gift of $50 million to the University of St. Thomas.

Hering said the funds will be used to develop three approaches to diabetes: transplanting insulin-producing islet cells from donated human organs, developing islet cells from pigs that can be used in humans and developing islet cells from human stem cells.

The university, the first to perform an islet cell transplant in 1974, is now one of many centers around the world focusing on various aspects of islet cell transplantation and stem cell technology, which has become central to diabetes research. In previous research Hering and others have shown that islet cells taken from donated human pancreases can be successfully transplanted into patients' livers. Since 2000, the university has transplanted islet cells into 26 Type 1 diabetes patients. Five years later, about half of them no longer need insulin injections.

But there are only about 3,000 pancreases available each year through organ donation to provide islet cells. Also, patients who receive transplanted islet cells must take powerful and expensive drugs throughout their lives to prevent the immune system from attacking the transplanted cells as foreign tissue.

Hering's first goal is to "create an islet sanctuary" in the body where transplanted cells can survive the onslaught of the body's immune system. The transplanted cells make up about one-tenth of a teaspoon of tissue, making it feasible to find a way to protect them inside the body. For now, research has focused on seeding patients' own abdominal tissue with islet cells and bioengineered products that stop the immune process, he said.

Hering's second goal is to develop unlimited supplies of islet cells either from pigs or stem cells.

The university already has joined forces with a Wisconsin nonprofit, the Spring Point Project, to raise what Hering described as medical-grade pigs --animals raised free of organisms that could cause cross-species diseases.

The university's third route will involve creating insulin-producing cells from a patient's own tissue with stem cell technology. Meri Firpo, a university stem cell researcher, said she is working on developing such cells from adult skin cells that are genetically engineered to revert to an embryonic stem cell stage. Under the right environment, she said, those manipulated cells could be made into insulin-producing cells. Theoretically, a patient's immune system would not regard those cells as foreign and would not try to destroy them.

Stem cells also offer a way of studying why diabetes occurs in some people but not others. By watching how stem cells from people with diabetes differentiate in the laboratory, researchers can see what goes awry.

Debra Schulze said the family has been following diabetes research for years, but waited to make a significant gift because they wanted to play a part in the last push towards a cure. Hering said their gift, announced at a news conference Thursday, means that could be achieved in five to 10 years.

"And I thank you from the bottom of my pancreas," he said to the Schulzes.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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