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The Gift to Fight Diabetes


A COLLECTIVE MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR GIFT opened the door for Raja Shekhar Gangaraju to research retinal disease associated with diabetes at the UT Health Science Center. Having lost his father and grandfather due to complications of the chronic disease, Gangaraju recognizes he would not be at UT without the generous giving and foresight of Mickey Coleman, Mack and Jonnie Day and Dorothy Gerwin. Photo: Lance Murphey

Diabetic complications drained the life out of his father and grandfather. So Raja Shekhar Gangaraju's fight against the chronic disease is personal.

His weapons of choice: a lab coat; a high-tech, sterile workspace; test tubes; and other state-of-the-art tools guide his brilliant mind as a researcher trying to eradicate retinal diseases blinding diabetic patients.

"Advancements in the clinic must begin on the bench," he says.

Gangaraju's bench—a lab, startup costs and research staff at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center—came to fruition at the end of last year because of a collective, multi-million-dollar vote of confidence by philanthropic giants Mickey Coleman, Mack and Jonnie Day and Dorothy Gerwin. While their shared backing unlocked research doors for the ophthalmology program, Gerwin's generosity also gave way to physiology, cancer and Parkinson's disease groundwork, and the Days' legacy also bolsters the Tennessee Athletics golf program.

"Without their gifts, their foresight, Dr. Gangaraju and other gifted scientists would not be here," says Dr. Barrett G. Haik, who serves as Hamilton Professor and founding director of the Hamilton Eye Institute.

In life, they gave abundantly to the Health Science Center, and in death, their selfless giving provides, in perpetuity, a way to attract more faculty and researchers like Gangaraju, who seek to bring life to health miracles.

A worldwide epidemic, diabetes affects more than 30 million Americans— nearly 10 percent of the population. This chronic disease can plague anyone, but it particularly robs the health of those who are of Indian heritage, like Gangaraju, along with blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Already encouraged by preliminary research and top-tier, hard-to-come-by federal research funding, Gangaraju and a pediatric ophthalmologist at UCLA are developing stem cell therapies in hopes of eliminating blindness and unlocking a promising treatment for diabetic retinopathy associated with diabetes.

In partnership with a UT physiologist, Gangaraju is also unearthing clues to determine whether a multi-organ treatment can be designed to repair diabetic-ravaged organs.

"We could produce new treatments to present to the FDA for approval," says Gangaraju. "Even negative results could lead to new knowledge, better therapies."

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