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Ann Romano

Christina Romano at mile 11 during the Chicago Marathon two years ago

Cellmates 'outrun diabetes' and raise money for islet-cell transplants

by Anna Bisaro
Oct 10, 2013

Tens of thousands of runners will pound the pavement during the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, but 257 Cellmates on the Run will be trying to “outrun diabetes” as they raise money for the Chicago Diabetes Project.


“I want a cure for diabetes probably more than anybody,” said Christina Romano, 30, of Chicago, teammate of Cellmates on the Run.  Romano was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes 16 years ago.  “It’s obviously a charity that is very close to my heart.”

Sunday will mark Romano’s second marathon with Cellmates.  She ran her first Chicago Marathon in October 2011 and she wants to shave a half-hour off her previous time of 4:57:18.

Romano chose to run for Cellmates two years ago because she was inspired by the stories of people who had received islet treatment through medical trials.  “I want that to happen to me,” she said.

Dealing with insulin levels during training presents a problem for Romano and other type-1 diabetics, she said, as blood-sugar levels may fluctuate. For her first marathon, Romano trained while taking her regular five insulin shots a day, but could not adjust insulin levels while she was running.  Now she regulates blood-sugar levels with an insulin pump during her runs.   

Romano and other type-1 diabetes do not have islet cells in the pancreas that produce insulin because their immune system has destroyed those cells.  While insulin injections can help regulate blood sugar, they are not as effective as the islet cells.  The Chicago Diabetes Project, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is testing transplant of functioning islet cells into a diabetic's pancreas so the patient does not need a full pancreas transplant.  Now in the third stage of clinical trials, the doctors are transplanting islet cells from donors into diabetics. 

So far, as a result of the trials, 34 patients no longer have to regulate their blood sugar with insulin injections, according to Dr. José Oberholzer, founder and head of the Chicago Diabetes Project.  Oberholzer is a professor of surgery, endocrinology and diabetes, and bioengineering at UIC.

One of the biggest challenges of the research is obtaining funds, which is why bringing scientists together has been so beneficial for the project since it was founded in 2005, Oberholzer said.

“Rather than spending 50 to 60 percent of our time on fundraising, we put our forces together,” Oberholzer said. Much of the fundraising responsibilities have fallen on him, he said. “I like doing it and the impact we have makes it totally worth it.”

Oberholzer himself has run 13 marathons for Cellmates: seven in Chicago, three in New York City and three in Boston. He reached his own fundraising record during the 2011 Chicago Marathon, when he personally raised $125,000. 

The Chicago Diabetes Project is one of the few charitable organizations involved with the marathon that donates all of the money raised to research, according to Katie Marchetti, marketing research specialist for Cellmates.  In the past five years the project has raised close to $1 million.

Marchetti said it costs about $100,000 for a patient to get a kidney transplant.  Putting the money raised in those terms, the team has made the equivalent of saving 10 people’s lives, she said.

As of Thursday, Cellmates had raised about $175,000, climbing towards their goal of $250,000 for this year’s marathon.  Each team member is asked to raise between $500 and $1,000.

Cellmates team member John DeLong, of Dixon, wanted to raise $1,000 for Chicago Diabetes Project when he joined the marathon team.  Days away, his total has climbed to $3,500. 

DeLong was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes 12 years ago and knows he will have to check his sugar levels regularly throughout the run. He says he is confident he will be OK on Sunday, as he has completed his entire training regiment, “without missing a mile.”

“I just want to finish without meeting the medics,” DeLong said.  “That would be my goal.”  

Laura Anderson will run her second marathon for Cellmates on Sunday.  Not a diabetic herself, Anderson runs for her grandmother, cousin and the countless others affected by the disease.

Anderson juggles training and fundraising with bringing up triplets.  She said she has found people to be very generous when she asks for donations.

“It is a disease that so many people live with,” Anderson said.  “It was important to run the marathon for a good cause.”

While running for charity adds a fundraising element, it also adds extra motivation for runners.

Romano said: “Many times the people who donate are the ones for whom life is hard right now financially.  They will help me pull through in the final miles.  I can think of those people living paycheck to paycheck that still donated.”