Donors provide a vital $10M to Defeating Diabetes campaign

Life-changing breakthroughs for millions of people made possible by donor generosity.

By Erik Einsiedel - 27 November 2023

Melanie Hibbard and Lindsay Burnham both know what it’s like to be part of a family affected by diabetes. Hibbard’s two sons were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and Burnham lost her sister to the disease.

But both also know first-hand how close the University of Alberta is to finding a cure. Their experience comes from Hibbard’s role as executive director of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation Canada (DRIFCan), and Burnham’s as executive director of the Alberta Diabetes Foundation (ADF). Both organizations have been longtime supporters of the U of A for more than 20 years. The partnership fosters collaboration, inspired by community leaders and donors, to see organizations with a common purpose come together with one goal: defeat diabetes.

This partnership made a $10-million fundraising initiative possible for U of A diabetes research. The Defeating Diabetes campaign launched in 2020, and now, three years later, the U of A marked World Diabetes Day 2023 by announcing that 80 per cent of that $10-million goal has now been raised.

Thanks to the support of DRIFCan, ADF and their communities of donors, Defeating Diabetes has helped advance groundbreaking research projects at the Alberta Diabetes Institute (ADI), Canada’s largest stand-alone research facility at the University of Alberta dedicated to preventing, treating and curing diabetes.

Opened in 2007, ADI is the manifestation of the U of A’s longstanding pursuit of that cure. It is a legacy of research stretching back to the 1920s with James Collip, then head of the Department of Biochemistry, who is co-credited with the discovery of insulin. Today, ADI researchers have made life-changing advances of their own, continuing in Collip’s footsteps a hundred years later.

These advances include the work of ADI researcher Jean Buteau and his team, who have identified a specific gene in insulin-producing cells, a step toward creating a new class of medications for treating diabetes. Now ready for the first clinical trial in humans, this could be one of the most significant diabetes breakthroughs to date, with potential for improved glucose control, reduced insulin dependency and even diabetes remission.

ADI is also home to James Shapiro and his team responsible for the Edmonton Protocol, the world’s largest islet transplant program, which helps people with Type 1 diabetes gain freedom from insulin injections. This program has successfully improved quality of life for hundreds of people with hard-to-control diabetes over the last 20 years.

Hibbard recalls meeting Shapiro in 2015, and was inspired to apply the full force of DRIFCan toward directly funding his team in their pursuit of a cure.

“As a mother of two children with Type 1 diabetes, I see first-hand the effect this disease has on our community, our health-care system and most importantly, my own family,” says Hibbard. “For the last 20 years, I have had the privilege of supporting cure-based research and together, with DRIFCan’s community of donors, we are providing hope for a cure for families like mine.”

For Burnham, it was heartbreaking to watch her sister struggle to do the things people her age are excited about, like graduating from high school, learning to drive or heading off to college. Burnham and her family witnessed her sister’s struggles with managing her diabetes — the countless appointments, hospital stays, medications and missed opportunities.

Like Hibbard, Burnham has deep personal motivations to see this disease cured, so no child will ever have to experience what her sister did. The Defeating Diabetes campaign was the perfect opportunity for Burnham and ADF to collaborate with other organizations like DRIFCan, united in their common pursuit of a diabetes cure for the world.

“Since that first islet transplant in 1989, the Alberta Diabetes Foundation has been proud to support the work happening right here in Edmonton,” says Burnham. “The global reach of the research happening at the Alberta Diabetes Institute is amazing — something all Albertans should be proud of. Having the opportunity to collaborate with other funding partners demonstrates our mandate: working together to find a cure.”

Buteau and Shapiro are just two of the many dedicated ADI researchers whose mission to defeat diabetes is made possible by the generosity of DRIFCan, ADF and other donors in support of the Defeating Diabetes campaign. Their work offers hope to more than 1.2 million Albertans living with diabetes, and they credit their success to the vital community and philanthropic support that brings this life-changing research to fruition.

The Defeating Diabetes campaign also supports several other U of A researchers, including Greg Korbutt and Andrew Pepper, who are addressing the supply issue of islets for transplant, and Andrea Haqq, who is exploring therapies to prevent Type 2 diabetes in children