Arleen and Don Wagner

Champions of Research on the Pathway to Stop Diabetes

A little more than thirty years ago, Arleen and Don Wagner from Venetia, Pennsylvania received news they were not prepared to hear. Their daughter Suzie was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was ten years old. The Wagners knew little about their daughter's disease when they first heard the diagnosis, but immediately felt indebted to scientific advances.

"Research has made a huge difference in our Suzie's life," Arleen said with a smile. "When she came home from Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, we were told that she was one of the first young people to leave the hospital with her own blood-testing equipment. That was amazing to us and we really counted on that machine."

Knowing that breakthroughs in diabetes research would bring forth new treatments and technology to help Suzie live healthily, the Wagners became involved with the American Diabetes Association (ADA) on both local and national levels. They started helping out at fundraising events, which inspired Arleen to establish a successful golf tournament that has brought in more than $250,000 for the ADA. At the national level, Don served on the ADA Research Foundation Board of Directors since 2000, and was Chair of the Board from 2005 to 2007. He also served on the Research Policy Committee for several years and held a seat on the ADA's National Board of Directors from 2007 to 2008.

In addition to volunteering much of their time and talent to the ADA, the Wagners contributed a generous amount of monetary support to ADA research with $1 million designated toward an islet cell replacement research project that took place in 2004, and a more recent $1 million gift to the Pathway to Stop Diabetes research program.

"My husband and I are excited about Pathway because more than anything we want a cure for our Suzie and for everyone who suffers with this difficult disease," Arleen said. "We know Pathway could lead to the type of discovery that could finally stop diabetes forever."

Don also believes that Pathway is the perfect complement to the ADA's successful core research program because of the advances made since Suzie's childhood.

"We know without a doubt that research funded by the ADA has improved the quality of Suzie's life," he said. "Today, she is the mother of two healthy children. She knows that the insulin pump, the blood glucose monitor, and the software she uses to help manage her disease are available because of the early work ADA research has done. Also because of research, she gets her eyes checked every six months because she knows that she is at a high risk for blindness. But if she ever developed problems with her eyes, there is laser eye treatment available because the ADA helped invest in those investigations early on. So much progress has been made and now because of how Pathway is set up, we can achieve more breakthroughs faster."

While the official launch of Pathway took place in 2013, the Wagners have been advocates of the program since it was only a concept more than five years ago. Don remembers being in the room the day that Ralph Yates, DO, discussed the possibility of the ADA creating a bold new program designed to find and mentor the next generation of brilliant scientists at the peak of their creativity.

"Everyone involved in the discussion was energized just thinking about what the future would hold if a program like Pathway was a part of the ADA's already strong research program. It was and still is exciting to think we might find the next Alexander Flemming or Frederick Banting."

The fact that Pathway grants provide substantial funding to talented early-career researchers and clinicians for five to seven years is just one reason the Wagners feel the program will guide us toward a cure quicker than current initiatives.

"Pathway scientists will not have to spend time applying for more grants to keep their projects going like so many current researchers are forced to do today," Arleen said. "Instead, they can use that time to do the work that is most important; and because Pathway is not tied to a particular project, the grant holders can pivot their work and go in different directions based on what they find early in their studies."

Embracing an approach to research that differs from the current trend, which is to invest narrowly in the study of a specific technology or pathology, is something that is needed with a disease as complicated as diabetes.

"Instead of investing in projects, Pathway invests in the best and brightest people who will take science to the level where optimal results can be accomplished," Don continued. "We are very excited about setting these great minds loose on this science and achieving something great. After all, what we really want is to find an end to disease that contains a lot of small puzzle pieces. Pathway researchers will be able to collaborate on assembling this puzzle and finally come to a solution."