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Minnesota Genomics Partnership Commits to 'Defeat' Diabetes in 10 Years

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics plans to lead a multi-institutional effort to translate diabetes research into improved yet lower-cost treatments, if not a cure, for the disease within 10 years – an effort it projects will require between $250 million and $350 million of public and private funds.

The joint research collaboration of the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota has announced its Decade of Discovery: A Minnesota Partnership to Defeat Diabetes. The initiative aims to bring under one umbrella the $20 million in externally funded diabetes research carried out annually by each institution, as well as development efforts by the state's largest medical device makers and food producers.

"This is an incremental initiative to really put a stake in the ground and make a real moonshot-type effort to make a real difference in reducing the impact of diabetes on healthcare and the economy," Eric Wieben, Mayor Clinic project leader in the Minnesota Partnership, told GenomeWeb Daily News. "The ultimate goal is to cure diabetes. Will we achieve that goal within 10 years? That's hard to predict."

For one thing, he acknowledged, it often takes more than a decade for new drugs to complete clinical trials and win FDA approvals.

"If we can move best practices, current treatments, out to all people within this area, through some really coordinated efforts to really push the advances in known science and known treatments, then even without some brand-new miracle treatment, we're going to be really be able to reduce the burden of this disease on the population and the economy," said Wieben, director of Mayo's Genomics Research Center. "There's no reason for people to go blind because of diabetes. There's no reason for people to have limbs cut off because of diabetes."

While Mayo and the university comprise the partnership, Decade of Discovery envisions pursuing collaborations with additional institutions, both from inside and outside Minnesota.

"We anticipate that a reasonable proportion of the discovery work in the early phase of this partnership is going to be occurring here within Minnesota," Wieben said. "We're gong to be looking for partnerships outside the state, and other people who want to really turn Minnesota into a demonstration project of how to best attack this disease," Wieben said in an interview.

Wieben said representatives of Decade of Discovery have had "preliminary discussions" with prospective corporate partners in Minnesota's sizeable medical device and food industries, whose identities he would not disclose.

"If you look at the list of major food producers in Minnesota, the discussions have occurred [with them], and we hope to be getting them really lined up to join us in this initiative within the next few months," Wieben told GWDN.

The initiative envisions combining public and private funding totaling $25 million or more each year of the next decade. That ambitious goal comes just months after the Minnesota Partnership lost more than $1 million through two budget cuts this year, as state lawmakers scrambled to plug a budget shortfall blamed on the weak economy.

Wieben said the dollars being sought would be a fraction of the $2 billion to $2.7 billion estimated as now being spent each year on treatments for the 269,000 Minnesotans who have diabetes, and hold the promise of reducing that cost long-term.

"We do recognize that it's a difficult economic environment. But we view the dollars we need to really push this to the next level as a relatively small fraction of the amount we're already spending on the disease," Wieben said. "We think it shouldn't be a huge task to try to find that even in difficult economic times."

A precise budget for Decade of Discovery will be developed as the oversight committee reviews a detailed work plan to be developed by leaders of the initiative, Wieben said.

Wieben spoke yesterday, hours after the Minnesota Partnership announced Decade of Discovery. The initiative is being positioned as having economic development benefits as well as medical ones.

"We will position Minnesota as a global leader in pioneering medical discovery and treatment. We will significantly reduce health care costs and generate economic opportunities that will benefit our entire state for generations to come," the Minnesota Partnership said in a Q&A posted on its website.

Decade of Discovery would be governed by an Oversight Committee of professionals who would set performance benchmarks and decide key details – including what research programs will be pursued, what new equipment and facilities, if any, will be procured, and how many additional researchers the institutions will need to hire.

"I do imagine that it's going to involve some new hires, some new infrastructure, and some support for some more risky but potentially high-payoff research projects to really try and make a factor difference in our ability to treat the disease," Wieben told GWDN.

Nobel laureate and Minnesota native Peter Agre will co-chair the committee with Vance Opperman, president and CEO of Key Investments. Other committee members will include former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz; Jackie Casey, executive director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International MinnDakotas; David Kendall, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association; Nancy Tellor, executive director of the Richard M. Schulze Foundation; and Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, the state's life sciences industry group.

Additional members of the oversight committee will be named in coming months, the Minnesota Partnership said in a statement, adding that they will be "respected global, national, and local leaders from medical research, business/bio-business, civic leadership, philanthropic interests, disease advocacy groups, and other impacted communities."

"We think we have the scientific talent, and the industry backup in terms of the medical device and food industries. With a fairly coordinated state effort here, we'll be able to make a real impact," Wieben said. "The plan is, over the next 10 years, to really defeat diabetes."

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