Diabetes is a disease where people have higher than normal blood glucose. Glucose is a sugar that our cells typically use to make energy. The two forms of diabetes are Type 1 and Type 2. In Type 1 diabetes, a person’s body cannot produce the insulin to get glucose into cells. This starves the cells. The prolonged absence of insulin can cause serious health complications, and if insulin is not administered on a timely basis, death. As of now, Type 1 is incurable, but treatable with insulin. With Type 2 diabetes, a person’s cells become resistant to insulin, so although insulin is present, cells cannot respond to it to take in glucose. If Type 2 diabetes is not controlled, patients are at greater risk of heart disease, blindness, infection and death. Diet, exercise and drugs can control this form of diabetes.
One reason diabetes is an important issue in science policy right now is the growing prevalence of obesity in the U.S. and other developed countries. One of the major issues with obesity is that it is highly associated with developing Type 2 diabetes. In fact, one third of adults in the U.S. are obese and 44% of U.S. adults are estimated to have diabetes. Because many cases of Type 2 diabetes can be alleviated with diet and exercise, researchers are looking carefully at these behavioral measures. However, since Type 1 diabetes still has no cure and some forms of Type 2 may have genetic causes, preventive measures will not be the answer for everyone.
Although prevention may be the best medicine, medical research has allowed us to understand and treat diabetes through the years. In 1675, Dr. Thomas Willis found that urine from diabetics had a sugary taste….gross! The first treatment for Type 1 diabetes came in 1921 when scientists discovered animal-derived insulin could be used to treat patients with the disease.
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes were distinguished in 1936, and in the 1940’s and 50’s, sulfonylureas were developed as the first Type 2 diabetes drugs. Another breakthrough came when human insulin produced and isolated from cells was developed by Genentech in 1978. The popular Type 2 diabetes drug, metformin, was later approved in 1995. In 2007, the first clinical stem cell therapy for Type 1 diabetes showed promise in replacing insulin producing cells. You can see that there has been much progress in diabetes over the centuries and it would be a mistake to slow down now. Further research can open new avenues for diabetes treatments and cures, but that depends in part on whether policy-makers continue to provide sufficient funding to federal health agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
What can you do to make sure our nation continues to invest in life-saving research?