Miami, FL (November 19, 2009) – The Diabetes Research Institute, a center of excellence at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, received a $3 million gift recently from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, administered through a grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRFI). The funds will be used to further the DRI’s work in moving beta cell replacement strategies to the next level of success by developing and utilizing a bio-hybrid device as a novel islet transplantation site. Ultimately aiming for tolerance, the device may allow for the delivery of localized immunosuppression, therefore potentially eliminating the side effects associated with anti rejection drugs.
The Helmsley Charitable Trust supports a diverse range of organizations, with a major focus on health and medical research. In early 2009, it was announced that the Trust had distributed more than $115 million in grants to research and treatment of major diseases, including type 1 diabetes, nutritional genomics, digestive diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis, and heart disease.
One of the Trust’s five trustees is David Panzirer, grandson of the late Leona Helmsley, who was a significant figure in New York’s real estate and hotel industries. Panzirer is the father of three, the eldest of who, Morgan, now 8, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in March of 2007.
“I learned a lot about what’s really important in life with my 6-year-old daughter as my teacher,” said Panzirer. “The first month after diagnosis was a nightmare for our entire family. Every shot and every fingerstick was a 20 – 45 minute ordeal. One night, Morgan took the syringe from me and it took her 45 minutes, but she gave herself her first shot. Morgan hasn’t looked back since.”
“A few months later, my grandmother passed away,” said Panzirer, and the direction of his career – and his life – changed.
Once he was designated a trustee of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Panzirer, who had been working in commercial real estate for more than a decade, decided to give up his career and commit himself full time to this new opportunity.
“I made a promise to my daughter that I would do everything I could to help her,” he said. Panzirer spent his first year immersed in learning how to be an effective philanthropist, visiting the most prestigious diabetes research facilities and meeting with some of the most influential people in the diabetes community. “To date, I have spoken with more than 300 people, anyone who could shed some light on diabetes research. I felt I had a responsibility to ensure the Trust’s funds were well spent and accelerating projects that had promise of being commercialized.”
His travels brought him to the DRI, where he toured the laboratories, spoke with many of the researchers and learned firsthand about the DRI’s singular mission to cure diabetes.
“Clearly, DRI is a center of excellence led by skilled and committed people. I met with Dr. Ricordi, who is impressive and extremely dedicated,” he said.
“Our proposed approach couples bioengineering-based technologies with novel strategies for localized anti-rejection therapy. This new funding will help us develop this promising therapeutic option toward FDA approval for clinical trials of what we believe could become a platform technology for cell-based treatment of diabetes,” stated DRI Scientific Director Camillo Ricordi, M.D. “This work synergizes with and complements ongoing efforts that are the core of a previous JDRFI-funded Center Grant also underway at the DRI.”
“The need for lifelong immunosuppression is a scary thought and clearly not a viable therapy for most patients living with type 1 diabetes. I know it wouldn’t be an option in children like Morgan. I am pleased the Trust could provide the funding to move this toward clinical application,” said Panzirer.
He continued, “Part of our strategy is to build partnerships, share programs, decrease duplication, and have a more concerted effort to help all people with diabetes.”
But ultimately, Panzirer has one drive – Morgan.
“At the end of the day, my goal is to know the Trust has made good bets that will make this disease more manageable until a cure can be found.”