Diabetes is prevalent and expensive, and continued research is our best weapon to combat its physical and financial costs. That was the take-home message from a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Endocrine Society, a FASEB member society, on September 14. The briefing focused on type 1 diabetes (T1D), an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas stops producing insulin—the hormone necessary for converting food into energy in the body—and for which there is no prevention or cure.
Judith Fradkin, MD, Director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolic Diseases at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), presented a T1D overview, including complications stemming from the disease. T1D accounts for approximately five percent of the 30 million cases of diabetes in the U.S. and is caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Because of the dramatic swings in blood sugar associated with T1D, nearly all major organs (i.e., eyes, heart, kidneys, etc.) are affected over time.
Dr. Fradkin spoke about research made possible by the Special Diabetes Program (SDP). Congress created the SDP in 2010 to provide a dedicated annual funding stream for T1D research and treatment, education, and prevention programs for type 2 diabetes. Although it enjoys widespread, bipartisan support, the SDP will expire on September 30 unless Congress reauthorizes it. “[The SDP] really enables us to do big and bold, costly studies,” said Dr. Fradkin, citing numerous research studies and clinical trials that have improved understanding of and treatments for T1D.
The second speaker, Shivani Agarwal, MD, MPH, treats type 1 diabetics every day as a researcher and clinician “on the front lines” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rodebaugh Diabetes Center. Dr. Agarwal brought home the day-to-day struggles of those living with T1D, from uncontrollable blood sugar swings, to the huge number of supplies diabetics must keep on hand, to the shortcomings of insurance policies that don’t offer access to many of the new technologies being developed. Dr. Agarwal ended with a plea: “All I can say is, ‘Help.’ . . . The SDP enables development of amazing technologies that will change the face of diabetes care . . . and make it easier for patients to . . . live their lives with this disease.”
Briefing organizers saved the best for last. Olive – a young golden-colored Labrador retriever that is a diabetes alert dog-in-training – stole the show along with her trainer, Becky Causey of Causey Labradors and Training. Diabetes alert dogs are trained to detect low blood sugar by the scent of their owner’s saliva, and then to alert their owners by nudging or pawing at them.
This is particularly important at night, when dangerously low blood sugar levels often go unnoticed by sleeping diabetics – and can lead to death. Because dogs’ sense of smell is so much keener than humans,’ diabetes dogs are awakened by the scent of low-sugar saliva. An alerted owner can then eat or drink something to bring their sugar levels up. Ms. Causey, who has been training dogs for 20 years, was quick to point out that as helpful as an alert dog is, it is an aide, not a cure.