Gift will support studies that engineer stem cells into insulin-producing cells

GALVESTON, Texas - Miriam McCoy remembers the uncertainty she experienced 45 years ago when she was diagnosed with diabetes. An incurable but treatable health condition, the disease prevents the body from producing or properly using insulin, the hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy.
McCoy resigned herself to her fate upon learning she had Type 1 diabetes.

“I thought, ‘If I live to be 65, I’d be happy,’” she said. “And now I’m 85.”

McCoy practices a strict regimen of exercise and healthy eating to keep the disease in check. Because she has Type 1 diabetes, which means her body no longer produces insulin, McCoy must inject herself with the hormone three times a day, or every time she eats a meal or snacks. “It just became a way of life,” she said. “I eat good food, healthy food. It’s not hard to live right.”

Hoping that she will one day witness a cure for diabetes, McCoy and her husband, Emmett, have contributed consistently through their foundation to support diabetes research at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. San Marcos-headquartered, The Emmett and Miriam McCoy Foundation recently awarded $100,000 to Larry Denner who has been working to engineer stem cells - primitive cells that divide and form different kinds of cells - into insulin-producing islet cells.

Stem cells used in these diabetes studies come from the umbilical cord blood of human placentas that are normally discarded after birth. Presently, the only source of islet cells is from donors, and those receiving such transplants for diabetes must undergo immune suppression therapy for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection of the new cells.

Stem cells have the potential to revolutionize treatment and represent a possible cure for this widespread disease. The American Diabetes Association reports that 23.6 million children and adults in the United States - nearly 8 percent of the population - have diabetes. The Texas Diabetes Council estimates 1.7 million adults in the state have been diagnosed with the disease. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in Texas, with 5,180 deaths directly attributed in 2006.

The director of UTMB’s Emmett and Miriam McCoy Diabetes Research Laboratory, Denner and his team of scientists are exploring how to engineer more stem cells into insulin-producing cells. They are investigating as well the difficulties that some stem cells eventually encounter in manufacturing insulin. “This research has the opportunity to improve the quality of life in patients with diabetes,” said Denner, a professor of internal medicine and director of research for UTMB’s Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Diabetes Center. “Mr. and Mrs. McCoy have made this all much more tantalizingly possible than would have been otherwise.”

Denner and his research team are also receiving $150,000 over the next 18 months from the Jerome Lejeune Foundation to support their continuing work to engineer more stem cells into insulin-producing cells. They are collaborating with two other international research groups to receive grants from the foundation for stem cell studies. The three teams of scientists from France, South Korea and UTMB will meet in Lyon, France, on April 29 to review their research results.

Dr. David L. Callender, UTMB president, credited the McCoys’ generosity with sparking interest among the university’s scientists over stem cells’ potential cure for diabetes. Since 2003, the McCoy Foundation has contributed more than $1.4 million to diabetes research at UTMB. “I appreciate their faithful support, which has been both visionary and transformative, enabling UTMB to develop one of the country’s foremost programs in Type 1 diabetes research,” Callender said. “Thanks to their interest and encouragement, our researchers are making terrific strides using umbilical cord stem cells toward developing a cure. I look forward to that day, knowing that such a remarkable event would not have been possible without Mr. and Mrs. McCoy.”

Miriam McCoy said she is much better at coping with the disease now than when she was diagnosed more than four decades ago. Despite that, she still looks forward to the day when she will no longer need to inject herself with insulin before every meal. “Giving to diabetes research at UTMB is one contribution we try to make every year,” she said. “We feel it’s that important.”

The McCoys created their foundation in 1993. The president and chief executive officer of McCoy’s Building Supply Centers from 1950 to 1997, when his son, Brian, succeeded him, Emmett McCoy opened McCoy Supply Co. in the 1940s with his father, selling roofing materials to the public in the Houston-Galveston area. Today, the company is one of the largest family-owned businesses in the home improvement industry. The McCoys’ foundation is separate from the corporation.