June 29, 2016

Partly sunny

Lab dedicated for scientist who was Medina native

MEDINA — The loss of scientist Jeffrey Howard Combs, presumably to diabetes, in August has devastated his family, but a research lab named after him at the Cleveland Clinic could help bring an end to the disease that took his life.



The J.H. Combs Idea Lab will be on the second floor of the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center, the new home of the nonprofit Cleveland Clinic Innovations (CCI) group, at 10000 Cedar Ave., Cleveland. The 50,000-square-foot Innovation Center will open in May.

“The Idea Lab will be used to come up with medical technology that could change someone’s life,” said Combs’ sister, Colleen Rice, community relations specialist for the Medina County Health Department.

At the J.H. Combs Lab, ideas for medical innovations and technologies will be researched and advanced while commercializing and protecting those inventions.

Combs, who graduated from Medina Christian Academy in 1994 and had lived in Medina since the fourth grade, died unexpectedly on Aug. 26 at the age of 33. Though autopsy reports have not yet ruled on an official cause of death, his family assumes it was Type I diabetes that took Combs’ life, Rice said.

Rice said her brother had juvenile diabetes, a disease in which the pancreas does not make insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar and starches in food into energy, leaving blood sugar levels too high. Sufferers have to take insulin every day, and even those who manage it well can end up with nerve or organ damage, she said.

“Jeff managed his diabetes his entire life, but diabetes is unpredictable,” Rice said. “He was looking for a cure.”
His mother, Diana Combs, said that growing up, her son wanted to be a fighter pilot but could not due to his diabetes.

So he majored in biology and minored in chemistry at the University of Akron, and then earned a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Texas.

An internship at the Office of Technology Commercialization at University of Texas-Austin sparked his interest in the commercial application of scientific discovery, leading him to Cleveland Clinic Innovations. At CCI, he was responsible for the commercialization of biotechnology and device inventions.

“Jeffrey always had a bright and curious mind ever since he was a child, so it didn’t surprise us at all that he went into the field that he did,” Diana Combs said.

But his life, which was brightened by his wife, Rendy Wilson Combs, whom he married in 2004, was cut short. His wife was out of town on a job interview the day he was found. Co-workers knew it was unlike Combs to not show up to work or call, so Cleveland Clinic police worked with his Realtor to get into his home.
“They found him, but Jeff was already gone at that point,” Rice said.

Combs’ family hopes progress toward a cure for diabetes can be made at the lab.

“With diabetes, we are so close to a cure,” Diana said. “We need to push for research and cutting-edge technology and put an end to this.”

Rice also said that progress in diabetes research could lead to innovations in other auto-immune disorders.

Whether a cure comes, the family said it is happy the lab will make progress on a number of diseases.

“I hope the lab is used to come up with more innovative technology and discoveries so diabetes is not an illness anymore, and I hope it’s used for other innovations and technology that will help people with other diseases,” Rice said. “Diabetes is not the only thing people are suffering from in the community.”

Until then, the family is keeping Jeffrey’s memory alive, remembering his accomplishments both in and outside of the medical field. He loved to ski and bike, was a movie buff and had an unusual talent for metalsmithing. His family has several pieces of jewelry he made, and Diana Combs said her son could just as easily have been an artist.

“His smile and laughter were contagious,” she said. “Everyone who knew him will miss seeing life through his eyes.”

Contact Lisa Hlavinka at (330) 721-4048 or lhlavinka@ohio.net.