- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

In the crowded field of medical research, even scientists with promising work can have a difficult time finding investors. Such was the lot of Dr. Denise Faustman, who is working on a cure to Type I diabetes.

Enter Lee Iacocca. The former chief of Chrysler has spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to bankroll research based on Dr. Faustman’s work, reported the New York Times on Tuesday. Dr. Faustman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, was unable to find private funding to advance her research. Mr. Iacocca raised $11 million and initiated the fund with $1 million of his own money.

Dr. Faustman has succeeded where no other researcher has before: curing diabetes in mice. Needless to say, applying her methodology from mice to men entails quite a leap. Still, her work appears promising, and interestingly enough, it does not depend on the kind of stem-cell research that so many scientists believe is the key to ultimately curing diabetes and other diseases. Also, it would use an inexpensive drug.

Dr. Faustman found that she could prevent diabetes in mice by stopping white blood cells, part of the body’s immune system, from attacking islets in the pancreas — the process which causes diabetes. This would happen as a result of supplying a piece of protein that signaled the white blood cells that the islet cells were normal, not foreign invaders. Islet cells come from hormone-producing regions of the pancreas.

She then used an off-patent, immune-system stimulant drug to stop the attack on the pancreas that was already under way. The drug, BCG, prompted the body to kill off attacking white blood cells. The mice were then apparently able to grow back islet cells from the spleen. None of these procedures involved the transplants of islet cells or attempts to create islet cells from embryonic stem cells.

The $11 million that Mr. Iacocca helped raise will pay for the initial phase of a clinical trial. That trial will aim to determine if BCG will prompt the human body to kill attacking white blood cells in the same way it did in mice. Mr. Iacocca said he hopes that pharmaceutical companies or government funding could continue bankrolling the research.

Dr. Faustman’s experience highlights how the marketplace may not always be the most efficient investor in cutting-edge but speculative. Publically funded research therefore remains important, and private philanthropy, such as Mr. Iacocca’s, can be indispensable.

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