Decades of pain and frustration have driven a McLean couple to donate $44 million of their own money to search for a cure to Type I diabetes. Bill and Dee Brehm spent years developing a comprehensive initiative with the University of Michigan to optimize the money and advance research on diabetes before making the donation last week. The couple hopes the gift will lead to the eradication of diabetes in the near future.
ÒOur dream is to enhance the work of scientists and accelerate the search for a cure. I was told when I was first diagnosed this was a disease for my entire life. My dream is that wonÕt be true,Ó said Dee Brehm. ÒDiabetes is a 24-hour-a-day experience. We just want to do what we can to get rid of it.Ó
Bill Brehm adds, ÒJust like smallpox, we want to get rid of it.Ó
The Brehms met in Michigan as college students and immediately began dealing with the effects of the disease. Dee Brehm was diagnosed in 1949 with Type I diabetes, or juvenile diabetes, when she was a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University. Over the last 55 years, she has given herself in excess of 100,000 insulin injections.
Developmental steps in the management of diabetes, such as the advent of home monitors, have given the Brehms, along with more than 1.3 million Americans living with the disease, more control. The Brehms, however, feel that much more can be done if a coordinated research effort is made.
To that end, the couple devised a four-part plan with the University of Michigan to create new research opportunities and avenues in the field. ÒWe went to them with a plan that laid out the concept,Ó said Bill Brehm. According to Dee Brehm, the couple first began forming the proposal five years ago. ÒIt has taken a lot of work to decide what to do,Ó said Dee Brehm. Along the way the Brehms have made several other significant donations to the school, but nothing of this magnitude.
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN was chosen for several reasons, according to Bill Brehms. His wife first came under the care of a doctor there, who led them through the consequences of the disease, and then a second doctor from the school helped the couple through two successful pregnancies at a time when someone with diabetes having children was a rare occurrence. The school is also Bill BrehmsÕ alma mater. ÒThe major reason is that we found the scientific community there to be open-minded and collaborative, which is absolutely critical,Ó said Bill Brehms.
The bulk of the money, $30 million, is slated for the design and construction of a research facility that can house laboratories, medical researchers and the latest technology under one roof, to facilitate the exchange of information in a clearinghouse environment.
The funds will also be used to establish a new Center for Type I Diabetes Research at the University of Michigan, to establish the Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Center, and to create eight new faculty positions that are devoted to researching the disease.
Dee Brehm said, ÒWe proposed this initiative to the University of Michigan because we found there the collaborative spirit and receptive attitudes necessary to consider and then embrace new ways of thinking about medical research. Moreover, Michigan has the technical and administrative strength and breadth to make this initiative a success, and it has the enthusiastic support of President Mary Sue Coleman and the entire University leadership team.Ó
ÒIf, through our gift, others can be spared the daily burdens of fear and caution and uncertainty that have so colored our lives because of diabetes, our dreams will have been realized,Ó said Dee Brehm.
Bill Brehm, a former government official who served as the assistant secretary of the Army under Presidents Johnson and Nixon and assistant secretary of defense under Presidents Nixon and Ford, made his fortune in 2003 when SRA International Inc., a technology government contractor, went public. He was the chairman of SRA until his retirement last year.
THE BREHMS USED their personal experience to create a vision for a scientific framework that could lead to new treatment options and ultimately to a cure. Dr. Bill Herman, with the University of Michigan, said, ÒOne of BillÕs greatest strengths has been information and communication. He brought that with him to this.Ó An issue in research on the disease has been the difficulty in getting timely information disseminated among scientists. ÒIt really hasnÕt been integrated as effectively as possible. It may be six months before a study is published on something that doesnÕt work,Ó said Herman.
The Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Center will be a ÒvirtualÓ organization that seeks to integrate all research information from the various different disciplines searching for a cure to Type I diabetes. ÒThis will bring together the best and brightest minds in terms of addressing the problem,Ó said Herman.
Bill Brehm said, ÒIt has been 82 years since insulin became available for therapy. It was a wonderful contribution. However, its effect, we must understand, was not to cure Type I diabetes but rather to alter it from a catastrophic disease to a chronic disease. Now it is time for Type I diabetes to become a ÔcuredÕ disease.Ó
Herman believes the $44 million will help the scientific community achieve new heights in medical research on diabetes. Herman said, ÒThere are a number of promising avenues. There are sort of parallel lines of research. This offers a lot of hope and a lot of promise.Ó
Diabetes is a host of disorders relating to the bodyÕs production of insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps the body to use food for energy. Type I diabetes is diagnosed in childhood or young adulthood, as in Dee BrehmÕs case. An inappropriate auto-immune response causes insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas to die, resulting in a lifelong reliance on insulin injections for the patient.
Type 2 diabetes is often referred to as Òadult onsetÓ diabetes and is diagnosed mainly in adults. This form of diabetes occurs over time as the body becomes less efficient at utilizing insulin.
Both types of diabetes can have serious complications including blindness, disability, heart disease and kidney failure. Early death from diabetes is not uncommon.
Dr. Allen Lichter, dean of the University of Michigan Medical School, said the BrehmsÕ gift will enable a Òfrontal assaultÓ on the disease. ÒThis initiative will point toward a new and different paradigm for Type I diabetes research. It is one intended to accelerate the research process through the unprecedented use of systems analysis and modern information science, and fed by true interdisciplinary cooperation and sharing of research results in real time.Ó
Though full realization of the plan outlined by the Brehms will take years, Lichter says the University of Michigan will do everything possible to fulfill the coupleÕs vision. ÒBill and Dee have an extraordinary vision of a new kind of scientific framework for discovery. And they are making this extraordinary commitment because they want a world where children and adults can be free of insulin shots and constant blood tests, and can live without fear of losing their sight, their limbs, or their lives because of this disease.Ó