Diabetes is America’s No. 7 cause of death, killing 71,000 annually. This disorder endangers nearly 26 million Americans and adds 1.9 million new patients annually or 5,205 daily. Left unchecked, one third of American adults will be diabetic by 2050. U.S. diabetic care consumes some $245 billion annually and devours 20 percent of Medicare’s budget.
And now the good news: Scientists and entrepreneurs are working hard to manage, treat, and ultimately defeat this disease. And they are making progress.
“Researchers are not choosing diabetes as their area of study,” warns Dr. Karen Talmadge, who chairs the American Diabetes Association. “One reason is the level of funding.”
Enter the ADA’s new Pathway to Stop Diabetes. Over the next 10 years, Pathway aims to award $160 million to 100 promising young scientists who will invent new treatments and seek possible cures. Researchers will compete for these portable, five-year grants of up to $1,625,000 each. ADA wants to initiate researchers and accelerate the work of those already targeting diabetes. ADA particularly wants to introduce experts from unusual specialties to begin battling diabetes with “new or even radical ideas,” in ADA’s words. This could include using materials engineering to create benign cells and tissues to improve diabetics’ metabolisms.
The first five to seven Pathway awardees will be unveiled in January, with grants totaling between some $8 million and $11 million.
Dr. Taylor Wang, a physicist and former astronaut, invented the bio-artificial pancreas. It emerged from research he conducted in zero gravity aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in April 1985. Dr. Wang now leads Encapsulife, a company dedicated to developing and marketing this device.
The bio-artificial pancreas contains tens of thousands of living pancreas islets harvested from pigs or live human donors. These cells would be encased in a polymer capsule, fashioned into a pancake-like patch the size of a half-dollar coin, and implanted beneath the skin. Encapsulife says this device protects the islets from a diabetic’s auto-immune system. It welcomes the patient’s digestive glucose. This stimulates the islets to produce insulin and then secretes it automatically into the diabetic’s system — as would a working pancreas.
Dr. Wang successfully reversed diabetes for up to seven months in nine dogs in 2007. More recently, he, Harvard’s Dr. James Markmann, and the living-cell patch counteracted diabetes in small monkeys without using immunosuppressants. A patent appears imminent.
Vmersion Health, a San Francisco-based start-up, has developed Gluco-Share. It lets diabetics use their smart phones to monitor their self-treatment and reward those who test their blood glucose, take insulin on schedule, and otherwise vigilantly care for themselves.
“Young diabetics often do not understand the dire consequences of going off of their treatment regimens,” says Joe Madden, a 48-year old as broad-shouldered as the ballplayers his sportscaster father, John Madden, described across hundreds of games in his career. Sipping his coffee at the Cup of Joe Cafe on Sutter Street here, Madden adds, “We believe Gluco-Share is a promising way to give new diabetics incentives to keep doing what their doctors prescribe.”
Madden launched Gluco-Share after his son Sam was diagnosed with diabetes at age 5. As most parents of diabetics recognize, material inducements motivate their children to manage their disease more carefully.
Through Gluco-Share, diabetics — especially young ones — use their smart phones to record their glucose checks and insulin injections. Soon, users will be able to track diet and exercise. The points generated from each smart-phone entry can be redeemed for video games from Electronic Arts (the makers of Madden NFL), online-game currency, and Lego (and other) toys from King’s Variety Stores.
The parents and doctors of diabetics can use Gluco-Share’s data to evaluate patients, confirm their adherence to treatment plans, and correct them when they stray.
Many miles, millions of research dollars, and countless hours of laboratory time remain before diabetes follows smallpox into oblivion. But, for now, the momentum is undeniable and positive.
Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.