Budgeting for Better Health

Faculty researchers at the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center are breaking new ground in understanding diabetes causes and mechanisms.

Their goal is to eradicate the disease, and they're backed by a $2.5-million investment from Medical Properties Trust.

Two employees have inspired Medical Properties Trust to make its next big investment — to eradicate diabetes, a disease affecting more than 29 million Americans.

Diabetes “is personal to us as a company,” says Emmett McLean, co-founder, executive vice president, and chief operations officer for Medical Properties Trust, which donated $2.5 million to UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center to bolster cutting-edge research. “It is an indiscriminate disease. It would be wonderful if the Medical Properties Trust gift could give those with diabetes healthier lives.”

“It was an easy inspiration,” says Edward Aldag Jr., co-founder, CEO, and president of Medical Properties Trust, a self - advised real estate investment fund that is the second - largest owner of hospital beds in the United States, with a reach extending to five countries. “We are in the healthcare business, and diabetes is one of the country’s worst, most prevalent diseases. We have heard about the great work in the research lab of Dr. Anath Shalev at UAB, and it was an easy decision to give this gift.”

In turn, local philanthropists David Silverstein and Benny LaRussa Jr. intend to raise an additional $2.5 million in private donations to match the Medical Properties Trust gift. UAB’s School of Medicine also has agreed to match this gift with $2.5 million in institutional resources, supporting an initiative totaling $7.5 million overall.

Groundbreaking progress

R. Steven Hamner, Medical Property Trust’s chief financial officer, and co-founder says the combined gifts are vital for continuing progress in the field. Already, UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center researchers are breaking new ground in understanding diabetes causes and mechanisms. Directed by Anath Shalev, M.D., the Nancy R. and Eugene C. Gwaltney Family Endowed Chair in Juvenile Diabetes Research, scientists are working on novel disease-altering therapies, such as a promising drug they are shepherding through the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance pipeline. They also are conducting a clinical trial based on their research showing that verapamil, a common blood pressure drug, completely reverses diabetes in animal models and could serve as a beta cell survival therapy in type 1 diabetes. In addition, UAB diabetes experts are training future generations of researchers and clinicians while providing the highest quality innovative patient care.

“The research efforts of Dr. Shalev and everyone involved in the Comprehensive Diabetes Center are centered around one goal — eradicating this debilitating disease affecting more than 15 percent of Alabamians,” says UAB President Ray L. Watts, M.D. “Gifts like this one from Medical Properties Trust combined with the philanthropic efforts of David Silverstein and Benny LaRussa are vital to expanding and accelerating our globally renowned research efforts. We are appreciative of their gift and determination to raise an additional $2.5 million to support our world-class researchers, and we are excited to partner with them.”

Shalev says Medical Properties Trust’s desire to end diabetes is inspiring to her fellow researchers, and the generous gift will help combat Alabama’s epidemic of diabetes and prediabetes, which costs an estimated $5.4 billion in direct medical expenses and associated indirect costs from lost productivity in the state each year, according to the American Diabetes Association. “We are in the buckle of the diabetes belt, and Alabama is typically first or second in the nation in diabetes prevalence,” Shalev says.

Fathers on a mission

The effort is personal for Silverstein and LaRussa as well. Both men have championed healthier lives for people with diabetes since their daughters, Sarah Silverstein and Chelsey LaRussa Heslop, were each diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as children almost 20 years ago. Sarah Silverstein is one of the employees who inspired Medical Properties Trust to make its gift. “At the time Sarah was diagnosed, I knew little about the disease,” admits Silverstein, a principal at Bayer Properties Inc. “But I made a commitment to Sarah to better understand the disease and do what I could to raise money to find a cure.”

Silverstein has lived up to that promise. He and LaRussa initially raised $15 million through private donations and gifts from the Diabetes Trust Fund to establish the Comprehensive Diabetes Center in 2008. “UAB made an institutional commitment to establish the center, and they didn’t do that randomly,” notes LaRussa. “There are few comprehensive centers at UAB, so knowing this gives the center immediate credibility. Dr. Shalev and her team are world-class.”

New scientists, new therapies

Shalev says the gift “changes the scope of our work and brings us a major step forward.” In particular, the funds support two key efforts: recruiting new faculty to enhance the center’s robust interdisciplinary research and finding new therapies that promote the patient’s beta cell mass—an indicator of how a patient produces and secretes insulin in the pancreas—to ultimately improve quality of life.

“We currently have more than 250 faculty and about an additional 170 trainees,” says Shalev. “We have developed a strong collaboration across disciplines and have expanded the area of cardiovascular disease as it relates to diabetic cardiomyopathy. These funds will help increase the number of faculties and expand diabetes complications research into other organ systems like the kidney and eye as they relate to diabetic myopathy.”

The second effort involves overcoming a major hurdle: finding a reliable measure of functional beta cell mass. Regulation of beta-cell mass is critically important to understanding diabetes, a disease characterized by a near-absolute (type 1) or relative (type 2) deficiency in the number of pancreatic beta cells.

“Currently, to assess how many functional beta cells an individual has, we have to put them through a rigorous, time - consuming process and then do the fancy math that only gives us an estimate of functional beta cell mass,” says Shalev. Now, “we’re looking for easily measurable biomarkers to better monitor natural disease progression.”

End goal

Shalev and her UAB team, as well as Aldag, McLean, Silverstein, and LaRussa, agree that everyone in diabetes research is working toward a cure.

“The opportunity for us to be a part of potentially finding a cure for diabetes is truly wonderful,” Aldag says.

“The brightest minds in all the medical fields are in Birmingham,” adds LaRussa. “With the collaborative environment at UAB that can ‘crack the code’ toward finding a cure, it makes all the sense in the world why we have this center here.”

Learn more about giving to the Comprehensive Diabetes Center: Erica Hollins, senior director of development: (205) 996-6839, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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