The Food and Drug Administration just approved what could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the treatment of type 1 diabetes in decades.
Dubbed an “artificial pancreas,” the MiniMed 670G is an implantable pump that senses blood glucose levels and delivers precise insulin doses to diabetic patients. Devices like these could make syringes for injecting insulin and manual blood monitors obsolete.
Unfortunately, victories like this in the battle against diabetes remain rare. Even though the condition is one of the top causes of death in the United States, research into it is grossly underfunded. Just as troubling, public awareness of how to prevent diabetes — and how to manage it effectively — remains inadequate.
The medical community has the power to stop the diabetes epidemic in its tracks — but only if it makes diabetes research and education a bigger priority.
About one in 10 Americans currently suffers from diabetes. Worse, incidence of the disease has been rising for years. The number of cases in the United States shot up 44 percent between 2004 and 2014.
Diabetes takes a toll not just on the health of millions of Americans but on the economy, too. The disease costs Florida over $24 billion a year — and the entire country about $250 billion annually. That’s bigger than the yearly economic output of most states.
Compared to these staggering treatment costs, research funding for diabetes is a pittance.
Consider that the disease kills 28 times more Americans each year than HIV/AIDS. Yet the National Institutes of Health spend nearly three times as much annually on HIV/AIDS research as on diabetes research.
Given the enormous promise of today’s diabetes research, this lack of funding is a missed opportunity.
Researchers at Harvard and MIT, for instance, are exploring a technique for making large numbers of insulin-creating cells that, once delivered to type 1 diabetes patients, could keep the disease at bay for years at a time. Johnson & Johnson, together with biotech firm Viacyte, is currently developing the first-ever stem-cell treatment for diabetes.
In short, we’ve never been closer to curing diabetes. But meeting that goal will take far longer if research funding remains as sparse as it is today.
Halting the epidemic will also require a more aggressive effort to prevent and diagnose the disease. More than one-third of American adults have pre-diabetes — the kinds of elevated blood sugar levels that often lead to diabetes. Yet 90 percent of these individuals aren’t aware of their condition.
This is where government agencies and academic institutions could have a significant impact.
The school I teach at, St. George’s University in Grenada, has already taken up this cause. We’re collaborating with Grenada’s Ministry of Health on a school nutrition policy to advocate for healthy consumption habits. We’ve also worked with the ministry to launch programs that promote physical activity in schools and offer exercise classes to the community.
Ending the diabetes epidemic is within reach — if we commit to funding the most promising medical research and effectively educating the public about the disease.
Satesh Bidaisee is an Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies at St. George’s University, Grenada.
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