Gift of $1.5 million supports lupus research

Robert and Carol Deibel give a two-part gift totaling $1.5 million to endow the position of the scientist leading research on food and the progression of lupus, Dr. James Pestka.

Dr. James Pestka

Roughly one in six Americans fall ill from tainted food each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that the economic impact of foodborne illnesses surpasses $15 billion annually.

This relatively common occurrence has necessitated the development of better safety standards, and thanks to improved knowledge and technology, food safety has been revolutionized.

That’s where Robert Deibel found his niche. He enjoyed a more than five-decade career in academia and private business, pioneering a bevy of food safety practices and authoring dozens of widely respected articles.

Though Deibel dedicated his pursuits to battling issues of poor food safety and quality, he and his wife, Carol, garnered greater interest in chronic diseases due to family circumstances. Specifically, multiple family members have had lupus, an autoimmune disorder with no cure that affects 1.5 million people in the U.S.

When the couple learned of research at MSU that examines how diets influence the onset and progression of lupus, they jumped at the chance to help.

Through a two-part gift totaling $1.5 million, the Deibels have donated $1 million to endow the position of the scientist leading the project, James Pestka, and $500,000 to his laboratory to support research activities.

“What Dr. Pestka and his colleagues are doing is so important to us,” Carol Deibel said. “We hope they make great breakthroughs because this disease has touched our family in such a personal way.”

Currently the main treatment methodologies for autoimmune disorders revolve around symptom relief and management. Rather than reacting to symptoms, Pestka is hoping to find ways of being proactive.

Using a mouse model in the lab, Pestka and his team have showed that consuming the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, can prevent the activation and progression of lupus when caused by exposure to a toxic environmental substance—crystalline silica. Several oft-eaten fish species, as well as common fish oil supplements, contain DHA.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Lupus Foundation of America funded this initial research.

The exact cause of lupus is unknown, but it’s believed that both genetics and the environment are factors. Workers in industries such as construction and mining, for example, are more likely to encounter crystalline silica or other harmful materials.

In Pestka’s lab work, mice that were predisposed to lupus had 90 percent of lesions on their lungs and kidneys halted after consuming DHA.

In addition to the gift from the Deibels, a five-year, $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will enable the research group to investigate why DHA proved so effective.

“There are likely a number of explanations, but one may be that DHA is telling the body not to overreact to the lesions,” Pestka said. “That means the immune system won’t target healthy cells, which wouldn’t exacerbate the growth and spread of lesions.”

Ideally, after gaining further insight from his studies, Pestka believes involvement from human health experts could further lead the research. He hopes to team up with autoimmune disorder specialists to determine the appropriate next steps.

“I’m really interested in the human health implications of this project, especially for people like Bob and Carol Deibel who are so invested in the outcomes,” Pestka said. “Without their generous gift, we wouldn’t be able to support such a robust program that promotes collaborations across our campus and beyond.”

Supporters such as the Deibels play a pivotal role in advancing MSU’s research capacity — now and into the future.

A primary objective of Empower Extraordinary, the $1.5 billion fundraising campaign for MSU, is to retain and attract world-class faculty members through the creation of endowed chairs and professorships. MSU ranks near the bottom of Big Ten universities with respect to the total number of these positions.

Empower Extraordinary runs through fall 2018, and although the university has surpassed its goal, endowed positions remain a priority. For those faculty members who have reaped the benefits of additional funding and the security that comes with it, the experience is special.

“I’m truly honored that the Deibels have entrusted me with their investment,” Pestka said. “That’s quite a compliment from Bob, given his illustrious career and influence on the industry. The commitment shows their faith in MSU as a leader and innovator in food science.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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