Dee Brehm is no stranger to needles. For the past 55 years, the McLean, Va., resident has injected herself with insulin more than 100,000 times and pricked her finger with a personal blood monitor more than 60,000 times in an effort to control her Type 1 diabetes.
Yesterday morning, she and her husband took a shot at ending the disease forever. Bill and Dee Brehm gave the University of Michigan Health System $44 million to accelerate the search for a cure to the disease that has plagued her since she was 19 years old.
The gift is thet largest ever received by UMHS, and it will be used to construct a new research facility. The exact location has not been chosen, but it should be completed within three and a half years.
Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile-onset diabetes, affects about 1.3 million people in the United States. The chronic illness occurs when cells in the pancreas stop functioning and no longer produce insulin, a hormone that regulates the level of sugar in a person’s blood.
It is less common than Type 2, which sets in later in life. In Type 2, a person’s body still produces insulin but no longer uses it effectively. Both types have similar symptoms and complications, which include loss of eyesight and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Brehms chose to give their money to the University for personal and scientific reasons. “When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I was sent to the University Hospital and they cared for me for two weeks and started me on a program,” Dee Brehm said.
Bill Brehm is a University alum, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and founder of an information technology firm.
When the couple moved to San Diego, a University doctor practicing in California guided Brehm through two successful pregnancies, an unusual accomplishment for a woman with Type 1 diabetes at that time.
Since then, she has become one of 500 people afflicted with the disease in the United States and Canada to live into her 70s, and one of only 70 people to remain relatively complication-free, said Brehm.
However, the donation goes beyond Brehm’s personal experience. The couple also feels that the University is a good place for scientific research. “Michigan is very collaborative and very open to new ideas, and that’s an important thing to bring in. We’ve had a wonderful exchange of ideas and meeting of the minds,” Bill Brehm said.
The gift is one of several donations the University has received for medical research recently.
“We think that we’re getting this support because we have a wonderful environment to conduct science,” said Allen Lichter, dean of the Medical School. “We have a critical mass of outstanding faculty, great students and top-flight facilities to make advances. Donors and others who support us feel confident in our ability to make a difference.”
In addition to the construction of a new research center, the money will be used to create eight new faculty positions devoted to Type 1 research. Current faculty at the University and people from outside the school will be employed. The new lab will focus on using multidisciplinary techniques and collaboration between different types of scientists to research for a cure.
“There will not just be endocrinologists working there, but also neurologists, cardiologists, information scientists and others,” Bill Brehm said. “All of these are important because it is such a broad disease. This kind of science is vital to collaboration and sharing information from person to person and institution to institution.”
The use of information science is one especially unique aspect about the new program. Information science uses computer systems to pass information back and forth between scientists and organizations. “So if someone in a lab at Michigan suddenly discovers something, they can share that immediately. It can go around the world, and someone who is working in a similar area can get it and accelerate their search,” Bill Brehm said.