Diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world, but as yet there exists no known cure for the malady. Now, as part of an international collaboration, researchers at Uppsala University will attempt to reprogram cells involved in insulin production, in the hopes of reversing the course of Type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes is one of the world’s most widespread diseases. However, it is unclear exactly how many people are affected. Sweden’s National Diabetes Register comprises 410,000 Swedes, but it is generally acknowledged that many cases of diabetes remain undiagnosed. Experts estimate the actual number to be closer to 600,000. However, what is certain is that virtually everywhere in the world, the number of diabetes patients is steadily increasing.
“Type 1 diabetes, in which our immune system attacks our insulin-producing cells, has become twice as common in the last 30 years. We know that the disease is linked to environmental factors, but we can’t possibly define which ones exist, nor do we know of any preventative measures that can be taken. Type 2 diabetes, which is much more common, is linked to obesity and early detection and lifestyle changes can slow its progression. However, we currently lack the resources to examine everyone who might be at risk,” explains Per-Ola Carlsson, Professor of Medical Cell Biology at Uppsala University.
Historically speaking, people have tended to develop Type 1 diabetes at a young age, whereas Type 2 diabetes mainly affects people later in their lives. For some time, however, a shift has been occurring in both directions, and there are reports from the United States of three-year-old children who develop Type 2 diabetes. Both diseases remain chronic, and the industry has largely focused on improving the medical treatments used to combat them, as well as the development of blood sugar monitoring technology, which facilitates the practical aspects of living with diabetes. For their part, researchers at universities throughout the world devote greater attention to the potential possibility of slowing (and hopefully reversing) the progression of the disease.
“In Type 1 diabetes, which is the focus of my research group, our work has to do with both stopping the immune system’s attack and saving and restoring the amount of insulin-producing cells. We will soon commence a study in which stem cells from umbilical cords will be transferred to patients who have recently developed Type 1 diabetes, in order to see if we can protect their remaining insulin-producing cells. We’re also working with reprogramming skin cells into insulin-producing cells. These can be used to treat diabetes in mice, but much work remains before the technique can result in a workable treatment for humans,” says Per-Ola Carlsson.
Despite the large number of people who suffer from diabetes, the funding of research related to the disease is severely limited. A few organizations (spearheaded by the Swedish Diabetes Foundation, the Swedish Child Diabetes Foundation, and Diabetes Wellness Sweden) are engaged in fundraising efforts, but are overshadowed by many other foundations. Johnny Ludvigsson, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Chairman of the Swedish Child Diabetes Foundation, has theorized that many people confuse Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, and think that a person “only has him/herself to blame” if he or she develops Type 1 diabetes. He also wonders if diabetes care services and the patients themselves give others the false impression that the disease is not that serious.
“The fact that diabetes probably seems less scary than cancer, for example, can of course affect people’s willingness to donate. At the same time, I think I see some improvement. We now have World Diabetes Day on November 14th, and well-known people are ‘coming out’ and talking about having diabetes. Such efforts are helping to raise awareness about the disease. Political commitment in the field, through initiatives such as EXODIAB, has given us diabetes researchers a great platform, and the results of our efforts are growing exponentially. So although I hesitate to make any promises, I’m optimistic that in 10-20 years we’ll have access to completely new possibilities and treatments,” concludes Per-Ola Carlsson.