• The Wisconsin family behind Ashley Furniture has donated over $50 million toward type 1 diabetes cure research, a personal cause as company founder Todd Wanek's son Cameron was diagnosed with T1D at age 13.
  • Money goes to the City of Hope organization based in California to create the Wanek Family Project for Type 1 Diabetes.
  • City of Hope researchers say they need six years to pioneer treatments and make the necessary research advances to find a cure for T1D.

Have you heard the news about the family in the furniture business that's investing millions of dollars into type 1 diabetes cure research?

The Wanek Family in Wisconsin -- the name behind the national Ashley Furniture store chain -- led an effort to donate more than $50 million (!) to the influential City of Hope research organization in California. In case you're not familiar with City of Hope: it's an LA-area center considered a leader in cancer, diabetes and bone marrow work. Among its claims to fame, City of Hope has performed hundreds of islet transplants and its roster of notable researchers includes Dr. Arthur Riggs, who developed the first synthetic human insulin available in the 80s, and Dr. Debbie Thurman, who just received recognition for her work in gene therapy and drug discovery.

This total of more than $50M went to the hospital’s Diabetes and Metabolism Research Institute, from the Wanek family as well as anonymous private donors.

OK, first of all: Wow! This donation is HUGE. Thank you to the Wanek Family (and others) for putting this kind of backing behind diabetes cure research! What an incredible gesture of generosity that will, without a doubt, move us forward on the research front. Yet, we find it odd that City of Hope has put a timeline on this cure research, with all the headlines proclaiming we'll have a cure in 6 years... ((sigh))

We couldn't help but shake our heads about attaching such an ambitious short-term timeline to finding a cure. How can they in good conscience make such a promise? Lead researcher Dr. Bart Roep at City of Hope says six years may be ambitious and that the focus here should be on research progress. Still they have to acknowledge the "Hype or Hope" issue in diabetes cure talk, right?!

We reached out directly to the Wanek family to learn the backstory, especially now have that their family name is attached to the building and project where this important diabetes research is happening. Thanks to D-Dad Todd Wanek, chief executive of Ashley Furniture, who took the time for an email Q&A despite his busy schedule running a furniture business:


An Interview with Diabetes Dad and Ashley Furniture CEO

DM) Todd, can you first tell us about your family’s personal diabetes story?

Todd Wanek of Ashley Furniture

TW) My son Cameron was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 13 in 2005. We also have other members of our family with diabetes, many of whom use an insulin pump, and a very large number of our Ashley employees are affected by diabetes too. Throughout the years, we have researched many alternatives for technology to assist those who are affected by diabetes.

How’s Cameron doing these days, now that he's in his 20s? And is he involved in the City of Hope research?

He's doing well and is managing his diabetes very well. He has not had Islet implants. Since he's doing well, that's not an alternative that we have pursued.

How did you get involved with City of Hope?

Ashley Furniture and my family have been involved with the City of Hope for over 20 years. Both myself and my father, Ron Wanek, have been awarded the Spirit of Life Award and have raised millions of dollars in the furniture industry to support cancer research. The company and our family have raised and made personal gifts of tens of millions of dollars toward medical research organizations, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, and Mayo Clinic -- which established the Todd and Karen Wanek Program for Hypoplast Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS).

Thank you for the incredible generosity on the diabetes research front! Can you elaborate on the donation amount and how you all settled on that?

Through countless discussions with the City of Hope, the institution determined the amount needed to devote their time and resources, through innovative research efforts, to seek a cure for T1D. The project will create a series of highly-focused programs based at City of Hope that will use an integrated approach to curing T1D, including immunotherapy approaches, as well as research into beta cell transplantation and preventing the body from rejecting those insulin secreting cells.

What's the reaction been like since the announcement of this donation and goal?

Many people are impacted by type 1 that we know and since we have made this announcement, we have received countless 'thank you’s' from people who live with diabetes, have a family member currently living with T1D, or have had friends or family members pass because of T1D.

What’s your understanding of the diabetes research City of Hope will be doing?

Our approach to medical research is very targeted and unique. The City of Hope monetary gift is completely focused on research for type 1 diabetes. An extensive business plan has been established to agree upon timelines and yearly budgets for the research, and this plan defines the path for curing type 1 diabetes in 6 years.

See this video, for more detail on the City Hope's personalized medicine approach to diabetes cure research.

Why six years?

Through our discussions with City of Hope, six years was the timeframe needed to pioneer treatments and make research advances in diabetes -- if they had the proper funding -- to finding a cure for T1D.

But what happens if they don't achieve a cure within 6 years?

We are very confident in City of Hope to create a cure within the six-year period. The entire staff at City of Hope are very invested into finding a cure, and we have complete faith in them into making this happen. 

Yes, but haven't we heard this before with past promises of that elusive “5-10 years until a cure”?

They are very dedicated to finding a cure within 6 years and we are confident they will do so. We will be conducting quarterly reviews of their progress and benchmarking their progress against their defined plan.

( Editor's Note: We pressed this question, but Mr. Wanek simply referred back to the family's confidence in City of Hope's research path forward.)

Have you explored other researchers and organizations doing this type of research on islet transplantation – for example, the Chicago Diabetes Project and Diabetes Research Institute?

Over the past two years, the Wanek family has researched a large variety of diabetes organizations. City of Hope has a long and groundbreaking history in diabetes and we feel they are best equipped to make our dream to cure diabetes a reality.


Thanks for your generous support of disease research, and we can't wait to see what happens from City of Hope on this front... whether it's within six years or not!