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The Russell Berrie Foundation has announced a $12 million gift to Columbia University to fund cellular therapy research toward a cure for diabetes. The foundation grant continues the philanthropic support begun by the late Russell Berrie, founder of Russ Berrie and Company Inc., an Oakland, N.J.-based global gift company. Mr. Berrie had Type 2 diabetes and through a 1997 gift created the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University. The center, named for Mr. Berrie's mother, is the only comprehensive diabetes research and treatment center in the tri-state area.

The most recent gift will help Columbia, which is already a leader in 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 Berrie 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, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, will focus on identifying the earliest characteristics of insulin-producing cells.

"The importance of this gift for me is that it keeps alive Russ's 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," says Angelica Berrie, who succeeded her late husband as chief executive officer of Russ Berrie and Company and is president of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

"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," says Dr. Gerald Fischbach, executive vice president and dean.

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 to 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 islet cells in the pancreas. By implanting insulin-producing cells, physicians could cure or ameliorate the illness. However, human islets are a very limited resource and 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 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.

Says Dr. Rudolph Leibel, professor of pediatrics and medicine, head of the Division of Molecular Genetics at P&S, and co-director, with Dr. Robin Goland, of the Berrie Center, "This new Berrie Cellular Therapy Program will allow Columbia 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."