Throughout his long and distinguished career, U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson championed legislation and public investment to improve the nation’s health. He was instrumental in establishing the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, Medicare and Medicaid.
After his death in 1989 from cardiovascular complications of diabetes, his family, friends and colleagues found a meaningful way to continue his public-health legacy: establishing the Warren G. Magnuson Institute for Biomedical Research and Health Professions Training.
Thirty years later, this influential institute has accelerated diabetes, neurosciences and Parkinson’s disease research; advanced the careers of hundreds of future health sciences leaders; and helped make UW’s Department of Neurology a national leader in the treatment of neurological conditions, clinical and basic neurosciences research and training.
U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson
The Magnuson Institute was established through state and federal funding to honor Magnuson and his wife, Jermaine. It consists of three endowed funds supported by private philanthropy, federal grants and additional funding from the State of Washington and UW Medicine.
“Both my mother and father wanted to cure diabetes and to stop the terrible suffering this disease causes,” says Juanita Garrison, the Magnusons’ daughter. “In addition, my mother wanted to find a way to train the next generation of diabetes researchers and other young scholars who could improve health in Washington and the world. To do this, my mother reached out to trusted and skilled friends like William Bakamis and others to work with us to create the endowed Magnuson Institute and the Magnuson Scholars. They succeeded, and over the past 30 years, the Institute and the over 170 Magnuson Scholars have been a great success.”
“A significant part of the Senator’s and Jermaine Magnuson’s legacy was the selection, mentoring and training of young staff from Washington for legislative and public service. When Senator Magnuson passed away in 1989, Mrs. Magnuson called on some of us and asked if we would help her and her family establish an endowed diabetes research and health professions training institute to continue this legacy. Naturally, we were happy to help her and the Magnuson family create the Magnuson Institute and Magnuson Scholars program,” says William Bakamis, a longtime Magnuson family friend.
Honoring the Magnuson family’s passion for supporting the next generation of researchers, the Magnuson Institute Student Financial Support Fund provides financial assistance to graduate and postgraduate students in health professions training programs. Since 1992, six Magnuson Scholars have been selected annually, representing each school of health sciences. The Scholars each receive an award of approximately $30,000 to pursue research projects in diabetes and other areas of medicine. To date, the Magnuson Institute has advanced the careers of over 170 graduate students across the health sciences.
The Institute also established the Warren and Jermaine Magnuson Chair for Medicine in Neurosciences. This prestigious position helped create and has elevated the Department of Neurology, enabling the UW School of Medicine to attract renowned neuroscience leaders who are advancing biomedical research on the causes, treatment and management of diabetes and related complications, Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases.
The Magnuson Institute Diabetes Research Center Fund aims to accelerate diabetes research and cure diabetes, as the Magnusons and the Washington State Legislature intended when legislation creating the Magnuson Institute was passed. Through its support of the new UW Medicine Diabetes Institute (UWMDI), this fund has consolidated and enhanced diabetes research and care under one roof, encouraging collaborations that are turning scientific discoveries into new and better treatments for patients.
Thabele Leslie-Mazwi, MD, the new Magnuson Chair in Neurosciences, will be joining the UW in late 2021. At UW Medicine, Leslie-Mazwi seeks to expand research and care in autonomic disorders — a common neurological complication of diabetes that creates a substantial burden on quality of life, including heart function. This exciting medical specialty, not offered anywhere else, has the potential to help thousands of people in our region and beyond.
In 2019, with critical support from the Magnuson Institute, the UWMDI united diabetes research and patient care in a new, state-of-the-art facility in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood — the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
At the UWMDI, researchers work in close proximity to clinical care, creating opportunities to collaborate with both providers and patients. This combined approach creates an unparalleled environment for innovative research across medical disciplines.
“Being in the same building allows the clinical group to engage directly with the basic science program and vice versa,” says Karin Bornfeldt, PhD, Fel. ’91, associate director of research at UWMDI. “For example, we’ve started a pilot and feasibility program to encourage basic scientists who want to engage in translational clinical research as well as clinicians who want to work on basic science questions. Two trainees are funded this year by pilot and feasibility awards, which could not have been done without philanthropy.”
The Magnuson Institute’s support of the UWMDI has also created a multiplier effect in helping to attract significant federal and private research funding. In 2020, Bornfeldt received a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for a new Triglycerides, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease Program Project.
Bornfeldt’s research focuses on understanding diabetes-specific cardiovascular risk factors in order to develop drugs and treatment strategies that can prevent complications. In this study, her team is investigating a potential biomarker that might help researchers and clinicians predict who is at increased risk of coronary artery disease.
“We’re interested in a type of cholesterol called remnant lipoproteins, which we believe is increased in diabetes patients who have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Bornfeldt. “We study a protein called APOC3, which regulates the levels of remnant lipoproteins, and we found that APOC3 was able to predict who was going to have a myocardial infarction (heart attack) later in life. Not only is APOC3 a biomarker for increased risk, but if we silence APOC3 in diabetic mice, we can actually prevent damage to the artery wall.”
In addition to her research, Bornfeldt is also the director of the Diabetes Complications Research Program, one of three basic science programs at the UWMDI. It includes a training program that brings trainees together with UWMDI faculty and other diabetes experts to present their work, collaborate and attend seminars.
Bornfeldt says the program is working to increase representation among trainees and to offer more inclusive and equitable training. Not only does it help fulfill their mission, she says, but it enriches the work they do together.
“Having diversity in trainees and mentors gives us more chances to ask different questions. Someone from one background might think one way, while someone else might think in a completely different way — and when you merge those ideas, you can develop something new and unexpected,” says Bornfeldt.
From supporting students and trainees, to promoting collaboration among clinicians and researchers, to offering a research environment that attracts federal and private funding, the Magnuson Institute has a broad impact on diabetes research and care that will be felt for many years to come.
Thanks to the generous support of the Magnuson Institute and other friends of the UWMDI, UW Medicine is moving closer to a future free of diabetes and related metabolic disorders. Researchers and clinicians also work together to prevent people from dying of diabetes-related complications.
Yet ongoing support from the community is critical to advancing this work. Indeed, says Bornfeldt, some of the boldest and most visionary projects — research that leads to the most transformative discoveries — can only move forward through private support.
“It’s hard to obtain federal funding for high-risk projects that bridge clinical research and basic science, so these innovative projects largely depend on philanthropy,” says Bornfeldt. “Having funds to support the next generation of scientists interested in studying diabetes and its complications is very important.”
As the Magnuson Institute enters its fourth decade, philanthropic support will continue to build upon this well-established foundation, accelerating an end to diabetes and related complications.
“Unfortunately, today diabetes is still the terrible disease that it was when diabetes research began at the Magnuson Institute and the UWMDI,” say Garrison and Bakamis. “While progress in understanding its causes and treatments have improved, much more needs to be done quickly to cure diabetes and to help those with the disease.
“Each of us can do our part by contributing to the Magnuson Institute and UWMDI to meet the goal of curing diabetes and ensuring a future that is diabetes-free. We know from personal experience that the donation you make today could help a loved one tomorrow.”
Written by Stephanie Perry
TOP IMAGE: Dr. Karin Bornfeldt, left, and a colleague examine a cross-section image of a blood vessel that is partly blocked by an atherosclerotic lesion. (Photo taken in 2016)
Support the Magnuson Institute’s efforts to accelerate an end to diabetes and related complications with a gift to the Warren G. Magnuson Diabetes Research Center Fund.