Research Center for the Amish Opens at Greenfield

By Foehlinger, Cris

Clinic that studies diabetes and other diseases is testament to trust built over time

Dr. Alan Shuldiner started researching adult diabetes about 14 years ago by driving from Baltimore to Lancaster County to draw blood from the Amish.

Twice a week, he would leave his home at 3 a.m. to be on Amish farms by 5 or 5:30 a.m. to draw blood from fasting volunteers.

“I had no clinic here so I would take a tabletop centrifuge from the trunk of my car and run it with a gasoline-driven generator,” he said.

The blood samples were frozen with dry ice and transported back to Baltimore for more testing.

Two years later, Shuldiner rented space from Dr. Holmes Morton at his Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, because the number of participants in the study had grown significantly.

“I was able to help them [with the diabetes] by giving them tests they wouldn’t normally get,” he said. “Then I would teach them about the disease.”

Saturday, 14 years after the research began, the staff and Amish community came together to celebrate the opening of the University of Maryland Amish Research Center at 1861 William Penn Way.

Horse-drawn buggies lined the parking lot and Amish filled the 3,300-square-foot facility. Many in the community brought food to share.

The new clinic gives the staff of 14 the space it needs to conduct tests for studies on diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast cancer. More than 4,000 Amish are participating in the various studies.

It also gives them their own identity. Mary Morrissey, nurse coordinator for the clinic, said most people assumed they were part of Morton’s clinic.

“I’d say this is a lifetime of fulfillment, but I’m not done living yet,” she quipped. “It is a lifesaver because we can branch out and conduct our studies.”

The clinic includes an ultrasound room, a DEXA-scan room for testing bone density and an examination room. There is a waiting room, decorated with a country flair, for patients tested for diabetes. “We give patients a sweet drink, usually orange soda, and they have to wait a few hours before we test their blood,” Shuldiner said.

The clinic also has a kitchen so staff can feed volunteers who must fast for tests. “They often go right to work from here …,” he said.

On the other side of the main waiting room is a state-of-the-art blood laboratory. Tests are conducted on-site and then the blood is frozen and sent to the University of Maryland for gene mapping, the doctor said.

Shuldiner, professor of medicine and head of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, chose the Amish community for his research because they marry within their community, have large families, lead a traditional lifestyle and keep family records dating back to the 1700s.

“This population has a stable gene pool and can help us understand what is at work,” he said.

When he started, Shuldiner had no money. He now works with grants totaling $25 to $30 million, most from the National Institutes of Health.

Amish volunteers get tested for specific diseases in the various studies. All medications and tests are free of charge.

“I met Sadie Beiler 14 years ago and asked her about diabetes among the Amish,” he said. By coincidence, she had the disease.

“The disease runs in families and many in her family had it so it wasn’t hard to convince her to take part in the study,” he said.

It was difficult to convince others, but the doctor said he worked slowly and word of mouth drew more Amish to him.

“Amish are leery of outsiders and modern medicine so they had to get to know me and know I wasn’t a fly-by-night researcher but that I was giving back to the community.”

Caption: Vinny Tennis, Sunday News – Amish buggies sit outside the University of Maryland Amish Research Clinic in Greenfield Industrial Park on Saturday. The clinic held an open house for the Amish and “English” communities to show off the new space for genetic research.

(Copyright 2007 Lancaster Newspapers)

(c) 2007 Sunday News; Lancaster, Pa.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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