Minivan Mogul is Recruiting for a Very Personal War on Diabetes

Lee Iacocca’s legacy will mostly likely ride on the Dodge Caravan, the Mustang, the K-Car, or maybe even the Ford Pinto. But in his later years, Iacocca has dedicated himself to a far more personal and weighty cause—a cure for type 1 diabetes. His foundation just put out its latest call for new research proposals.

Ever since the former auto company CEO’s wife Mary K. Iacocca died of complications from insulin-dependent diabetes, Lee Iacocca has made it his life’s mission to find a cure for the disease. Since the Iacocca Family Foundation launched in 1984, it’s made more than $40 million in grants to the cause. The 2014 call for proposals recently dropped, and researchers have until the end of January to pitch the foundation for up to $500,000 each.

While the funder will back work that tries to curb complications of the chronic disease, Iacocca is really after a cure, once and for all, and his motivation is a tear-jerker. 

His wife Mary lived with type 1 diabetes (the lifelong version that typically manifests in children and young adults) since she was 23, and succumbed to the disease in 1983. Lee Iacocca committed to doing everything he can to find a cure in his lifetime:

She lived 34 great years, and then she got the complications. She was a good Irish girl, and she said, "Make sure you put down on my death certificate that I died from complications. I didn't die from a heart attack," she said. Because people don't understand what diabetes is. They think it takes a couple of needles and you're okay the rest of your life.

This is a common problem for the illness, once known as juvenile diabetes, and marked by an inability to produce insulin. Often confused with type 2, or hyperglycemia, type 1 is chronic and treatable, although patients are steadily overtaken by debilitating symptoms. An estimated 1 million Americans have type 1 diabetes.

Now approaching 90, Iacocca’s search for an elusive cure continues. The foundation supports innovative forms of research (although note that they don't back work involving embryonic stem cells), searching out new ideas and starting with one year of funding. But they will extend support if the work seems particularly promising.

For example, one ongoing beneficiary has been Dr. Denise Faustman of Massachusetts General Hospital. Faustman is researching a drug to reduce the number of malfunctioning T cells that destroy the pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production. The treatment has reversed diabetes in early studies on mice, and is undergoing clinical trials in humans now.

Learn more about the latest request for proposals here.