Medical Properties Trust gifts $2.5 million to UAB’s Diabetes Center

Diabetes child
With the high incidence of juvenile diabetes in Alabama, many youngsters must learn to check their blood sugar levels with a handheld monitor. [Contributed]

Four Birmingham businessmen did not bond over shared hobbies. Their common interest was rooted in finding a way to eradicate a disease that affects close to 30 million Americans, including members of their own families and company – diabetes.

Talk was not where the interest ended for Medical Properties Trust co-founders Edward Aldag Jr. and Emmett McLean, and philanthropists David Silverstein and Benny LaRussa Jr. A self-advised real estate investment fund, Medical Properties Trust recently donated $2.5 million to the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center to further bolster the cutting-edge efforts of the research entity. In turn, LaRussa and Silverstein intend to raise an additional $2.5 million in private donations to match the Medical Properties Trust gift. UAB’s School of Medicine also has agreed to match this gift with an additional $2.5 million in institutional resources to support what is an overall $7.5 million initiative.

“It was an easy inspiration,” said Aldag, CEO and president of Medical Properties Trust, the second-largest owner of hospital beds in the United States, with a reach that extends to five countries. “We are in the health care business, and diabetes is one of the worst and most prevalent diseases in this country. We have heard about the great work in the research lab of Dr. Anath Shalev at UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center, and it was an easy decision to give this gift.”

UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center researchers are conducting cutting-edge research into the causes and mechanisms of diabetes with a promising drug currently in the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance pipeline, and the ongoing clinical trial that repurposes verapamil as a beta cell survival therapy in Type 1 diabetes. Directed by Anath Shalev, M.D., the Nancy R. and Eugene C. Gwaltney Family Endowed Chair in Juvenile Diabetes Research, UAB scientists are working on these and other novel disease-altering therapies, and training future generations of diabetes researchers and clinicians while providing the highest-quality innovative care to diabetes patients.

“The research efforts of Dr. Shalev and everyone involved in the Comprehensive Diabetes Center are centered around one goal – eradicating this debilitating disease that affects 30 million Americans, including more than 13 percent of Alabamians,” said Ray L. Watts, UAB president. “Gifts like this one from Medical Properties Trust combined with the philanthropic efforts of David Silverstein and Benny LaRussa are vital to expanding and accelerating our globally renowned research efforts. We are appreciative of their gift and determination to raise an additional $2.5 million to support our world-class researchers, and we are excited to partner with them in this effort.”

Silverstein and LaRussa honored Medical Properties Trust for its gift with an October event at The Country Club of Birmingham. The event served as the launch to raise the additional $2.5 million in support of this $7.5 million initiative.

R. Steven Hamner, Medical Properties Trust’s chief financial officer and co-founder, says the combined gifts from his company and UAB, and the drive to raise an additional $2.5 million from the community, are vital to continuing to advance the progress in the field. The three Medical Properties Trust leaders were also inspired to make this philanthropic donation because two valued employees have Type 1 diabetes, one of whom is Silverstein’s daughter, Sarah.

“It’s personal to us as a company,” said McLean, Medical Properties Trust’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I think a lot of our other employees didn’t realize these two have diabetes because they look so healthy, but the fact of the matter is that diabetes is an indiscriminate disease. It would be wonderful if the Medical Properties Trust gift could give those living with diabetes healthier lives.”

Shalev said the desire that Medical Properties Trust has to help find a way to end diabetes is inspiring to the researchers in UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center. She says their generous gift will help combat the epidemic of diabetes and prediabetes in Alabama, which cost an estimated $5.4 billion total in direct medical expenses and associated indirect costs from lost productivity in the state each year, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“We are in the buckle of the diabetes belt, and as a state, we are typically either No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation in terms of our diabetes prevalence,” Shalev said. “We are grateful to Medical Properties Trust for this gift, as it addresses an urgent need.”

Fathers on a mission 

Providing healthier lives for people with diabetes is a cause Silverstein and LaRussa have championed since their daughters, Sarah Silverstein and Chelsey LaRussa Heslop, were each diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as children almost 20 years ago. 

“At the time Sarah was diagnosed, I knew very little about the disease,” said Silverstein, a principal at Bayer Properties Inc., who teared up while talking about his daughter’s fight. “But having a child with a life-threatening disease puts everything into perspective, and I made a commitment to Sarah that I would better understand the disease and do what I could to raise money to find a cure.”

Silverstein has lived up to that promise. He and LaRussa initially raised $15 million through private donations and gifts from the Diabetes Trust Fund to establish the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center in 2008.

“It’s important for people to understand that UAB made an institutional commitment to establish the Comprehensive Diabetes Center, and they didn’t do that randomly,” LaRussa said. “Dr. Shalev and the team she has assembled are world-class, which gives the center immediate credibility. That’s one of the mandates David and I both had when this all started.”

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Republished with permission from the Alabama NewsCenter.