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Russell Berrie Foundation Gift to Columbia University Propels Diabetes Treatment into New Era

  [ 53 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • June 3, 2003

$12 million gift to fund cellular therapy program

New York, NY – May 28, 2003 – The Russell Berrie Foundation has announced a $12 million gift to Columbia University to fund cellular therapy research toward a cure for diabetes, a disease affecting an estimated 17 million Americans. The grant from the foundation continues the philanthropic support begun by the late Russell Berrie, founder of Russ Berrie and Company Inc., a global gift company based in Oakland, N.J. and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Russell Berrie Foundation was created to express the values, passions and ideas of Mr. Berrie, whose interest in diabetes was quite personal. He had Type 2 diabetes, and, through a large gift in 1997, created the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University. The Berrie Center, named for Mr. Berrie’s mother, is the only comprehensive diabetes research and treatment center in the New York tri-state area.

The most recent gift will help Columbia, which is already at the forefront of diabetes research and treatment, to open yet another front in the war on the disease: cellular therapy research. This new field holds the promise that medicine will be able to restore body tissues in ways that until recently were unimaginable.

Columbia will use the grant to establish the Russell Berrie Foundation Program in Cellular Therapies for Diabetes at the university’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. The gift also will help support and advance the work of a number of research collaborators outside the university. The first of these collaborators, Dr. Doug Melton of Harvard University, will focus his efforts on identifying the earliest characteristics of insulin-producing cells.

“The importance of this gift for me,” says Angelica Berrie, “is that it keeps alive Russ’ dream of finding a cure for diabetes. By collaborating with the best minds in research, we will achieve that dream, and improve the health and lives of millions of people who live with this disease and its devastating complications.”

“This gift will permit an assault on the disease using cellular and gene therapy to
dramatically change the course of the disease and the lives of diabetes patients,” said Dr. Gerald D. Fischbach, executive vice president and dean of the faculties of medicine and health sciences at Columbia University Health Sciences.

Cellular therapy
Cellular therapy research involves manipulating cells through genetic and other means, so that when they are implanted in a patient, they take over the functions of defective or damaged body tissues. This approach applies not just to diabetes, but many other conditions, including ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, and brain and spinal injuries.

In healthy people, insulin — a crucial hormone lacking in the bodies of diabetes patients — is produced by special cells found in the pancreas, in clusters called islets. By implanting insulin-producing cells, physicians could cure or ameliorate the illness. Whole islet transplants are an example of such treatment. However, human islets are a very limited resource. New means of creating insulin-producing cells are needed. Diabetes research in cellular therapy is directed at engineering cells to produce insulin.

Success in these efforts could spare patients the need for daily insulin injections and prevent the devastating complications of diabetes: blindness, amputations, kidney failure, nerve damage and heart disease.

The Berrie Foundation commitment
The Berrie gift to Columbia is the most recent grant to further the university’s efforts to find a cure for diabetes and advance treatment in patients of all ages.

In 2000, the Berries established the Naomi Berrie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diabetes Research and the Frontiers in Diabetes Research Symposium, both of which were designed to recognize and encourage outstanding research in diabetes, promote scientific collaboration with other medical institutions, and provide a forum for the exchange of new information.

An additional $7.5 million grant in 2001 helped launch the Berrie Family Diabetic Retinopathy Program, an all-out collaborative attack on diabetes-associated vision loss.

“This new Berrie Cellular Therapy Program will allow Columbia University and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center to launch a major effort in treatment and prevention of diabetes using the most advanced approaches of cellular biology and molecular genetics,” said Dr.
Rudolph L. Leibel, co-director of the Berrie Center (with Dr. Robin Goland) and professor of pediatrics and medicine and head of the Division of Molecular Genetics at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.

# # #

About Columbia University Health Sciences: Situated on a 20-acre campus in the Washington Heights community of northern Manhattan—and comprising roughly half of Columbia University’s nearly $2 billion annual budget—Columbia University Health Sciences provides world-class leadership in scientific research, health and medical education, and patient care. Faculty members from its four schools—the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the School of Dental & Oral Surgery, the School of Nursing, and the Mailman School of Public Health—carry out the school’s core mission of educating and training future generations of health care professionals; conduct basic research with the ultimate goal of translating discoveries into new techniques for fighting disease and improving health; and are responsible for a number of significant clinical breakthroughs, including the first blood test for cancer, the first medical use of the laser, and the first successful transfer of genes from one cell to another.

About the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center: The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center ( combines unprecedented family-centered patient care and education with world-class diabetes research programs. Located at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, 168th Street and Broadway, in New York City, the center hosts a renowned team of adult and pediatric diabetes experts, which include endocrinologists, nurse-educators, family counselors, nutritionists, podiatrists, and ophthalmologists.

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