Working to kill the killers
Research at UNMC is helping to find a cure for autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes.
n Arizona cowboy was just a few years into his career as a pro steer wrestler when he got attacked by some killers.
So did some of his rodeo friends.
The attacks were odd. This cowboy, Johnny Kieckhefer, was 26 at the time and these particular killers – the killer cells of autoimmune Type 1 diabetes – usually go after kids.
“For me personally, living with it has been difficult at times, and it’s been hard,” says Kieckhefer, who’s now 37. “But what breaks my heart, and what motivates us, is seeing the kids diagnosed with diabetes at just 4, 5, 6 years old.”
He and his family made it a goal to do what they could to kill those killer cells.
Johnny Kieckhefer’s great-grandfather, J.W. Kieckhefer, was one of the best known industrialists in the country. J.W. started the family foundation that bears his name in the early 1950s. Over the years that foundation, based in Prescott, Ariz., has quietly funded medical research in areas that it felt could be significantly advanced with relatively modest amounts of funding. (Johnny’s family also excelled in the rodeo arena – another grandfather was legendary hall of famer Chuck Sheppard, known as the toughest competitor of his day.)
Since Johnny’s diagnosis in 2001, supporting research on autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes has found a special place in the family’s heart. Johnny and his family sought out the top researchers in the world to help in the fight – people doing the most groundbreaking work, people with the best shot at finding a cure someday.
People like UNMC’s Nora Sarvetnick, Ph.D.
Sarvetnick, founding director of the university’s Nebraska Regenerative Medicine Project, has an international reputation for her research into autoimmune diabetes and ways to grow cells of the pancreas. Her name kept coming up in conversations.
They met her face to face a few years back when she was still working at the prestigious Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. “We got a good read on her,” he says. “We could tell she was also a great person.”
After she moved to UNMC in 2008, they gave her seed money to jump-start a study on autoimmune diabetes. Using that seed money, she collected a large amount of quality data in her research – “phenomenal research,” Kieckhefer says – and now has leveraged that work into six years of funding from the National Institutes of Health. She’s increased the Kieckhefer money tenfold.
She and her team have just started year two of the NIH grant. They are studying a specific type of cell no one has looked at before. They’re looking at this cell in mice with diabetes and also humans with diabetes. Next, they will try to block it in people.
“Kill the Killers.”
That’s the first step, and the name of the first stage of the Kieckhefer research as well as the first stage of her NIH funding.
The next step will be finding a way to regenerate the cells.
In people with diabetes, the body’s own immune cells go haywire and attack the good, insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
“People with diabetes don’t have functioning islet cells,” she says. “And so we’ve been working on trying to grow more tissue.”
Her team has moved from mainly studying similar diseases and cells in mice to studying them in humans.
Although Type 1 diabetes primarily attacks kids, she says, its frequency is going up in adults. The severity is going up. No one is sure why. It could be a virus. It could be the environment.
Maybe Johnny Kieckhefer and his fit cowboy friends who came down with diabetes – all of them in their early or mid-20s at the time – had caught the same virus while out on the rodeo circuit, she says. Maybe a virus they all caught triggered the disease. Maybe it was something in their rodeo environment.
Says Sarvetnick: “Here in Omaha the frequency is going up, too. There’s a lot of new onset Type 1 diabetes, and more people succumbing to it.” Sarvetnick’s corner office is perched high in Durham Research Tower II.
She has a great view of Omaha from her desk, with windows on two sides. Look to the left and she can see an old cemetery on a hill. Look to the right and she can see the trees of Omaha’s old neighborhoods. Look straight ahead, and she can see Durham Research Tower I and maybe wave at her researcher husband, Howard, if he’s looking up from his office window. Howard Fox, M.D., Ph.D., is a renowned neurodegenerative researcher.
He grew up in Chicago and wanted to move back to the Midwest, Sarvetnick says, so the family followed him from San Diego to Omaha in 2008.
Photos of their three kids on her desk smile back at her.
“Our kids thought we were moving to a place with nothing but cornfields,” says Sarvetnick, who grew up in New Jersey. “But Omaha is a very nice place to raise a family. People are extremely accepting and friendly. I was really shocked at how friendly people are here.”
She praises the city to the top faculty she’s trying to recruit here – regenerative medicine experts who will start their own research programs. Besides studying ways to grow pancreatic cells and cure diabetes, her team also will focus on ways to grow bone stem cells to repair broken bones and osteoporosis; ways to grow cardiac stem cells to increase the strength of the heart muscle in people with heart disease; and ways to grow intestinal stem cells to treat intestinal insufficiency, which occurs both with age and disease.
People in Omaha and the area will be able to take part in clinical trials for these in their own backyard. Private donations, she says, really help UNMC recruit the best of the best. People want to have enough funding so that they can really give their program a real jump-start.
“Our goal is to elevate basic science,” she says. “But it’s also to leverage the clinical programs so that we can offer new therapies and new technologies so we’re able to recruit new patients. And our goal is to create homegrown cures.”
Johnny Kieckhefer flies into Omaha several times a year. He sees UNMC’s Jennifer Larsen, M.D., for his diabetes treatment. And he always makes a point to stop by Sarvetnick’s office.
For this cowboy/rancher, the trips from Arizona to Nebraska are worthwhile because he sees all the exciting things going on in Sarvetnick’s lab and everywhere else at UNMC.
“It’s nice to be treated at a facility that you know is very active in solving problems,” he says. “You just feel more comfortable knowing that all these great things are going on behind the scenes.”
Nebraska should be proud to have Sarvetnick, Kieckhefer says, someone who is helping find a cure for diabetes. He’s proud that his family’s foundation found a researcher like her with the skills to kill the killers.
A cowboy in a white lab coat.
“We’re proud of her because we’re seeing great, positive outcome from our donations and our investment in her and her project,” he says. “And I know personally that her leadership style, and how she works with her staff, is just amazing. I’ve seen how she interacts with them, the goal she sets for her staff and how she motivates them to accomplish those goals. She has such a great leadership quality.”
And he’s proud of her, as a friend, to see her accomplishing her goals.
“It’s just an amazing blessing to be a part of what she’s getting done there.”
Support for faculty – including research stars like Dr. Sarvetnick – is a priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you would like to help her in her efforts to find a cure for diabetes, please consider giving online to the Killing the Killers Fund. Or you can help her regenerative medicine team by donating to the Regenerative Medicine Fund. You can do this online or you can contact the foundation’s Meg Johnson at 800-432-3216.