For the approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. living with type 1 diabetes, 2014 was a year of significant advances. Treatments and technologies are improving. Research is uncovering new paths to understand the disease and develop better treatments. And public awareness of this chronic autoimmune disease is growing. There was much to celebrate last year:
1) Pioneering technology.
Last summer, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed how an experimental device, the bionic pancreas, made it possible to automatically regulate glucose levels in youth with T1D -- even while they were running and playing outdoors. The wearable device, which consists of a smartphone-driven app paired with pumps for insulin and glucagon and a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), has now undergone several successful trials on young people and adults. Based on these encouraging results, scientists believe this technology has the chance to significantly ease the burden of managing T1D while achieving better health outcomes for people with the disease.
2) Stem-cell research breakthroughs.
In October, a team of researchers at Harvard University published a study in which they created insulin-producing beta cells from induced pluripotent stem cells on a scale that offers the clearest path yet to human trials. Observers said the cell study not only has significant clinical potential for people with type 1 diabetes, but also opens an important new path for researchers to understand and develop novel treatments for this disease. Science magazine rated it one of the top five scientific breakthroughs of the year.
3) Greater awareness.
Social media is raising the visibility of type 1 diabetes like never before. Celebrities like Sierra Sandison, Miss Idaho 2014 and proud wearer of an insulin pump, shot to viral fame while putting the realities of living with T1D in the public light.
We are moving in the right direction, but we are a long way from the finish line. Compared to type 2 diabetes, which afflicts more than ten times as many people in the United States, T1D receives considerably less attention from public and private funders, researchers and drug and medical device companies. As anyone affected by T1D knows, managing the disease is a constant grind that takes a toll on people with T1D and their families.
Fortunately, there are promising opportunities on the horizon in 2015:
1) Connected patient communities.
Patient engagement is changing the way research happens. The T1D Exchange, for example, features a network of 70+ clinics across the US, a registry with well characterized data on 26,000+ people with T1D, a Biobank housing a vast collection of biosamples, and Glu, an online community of more than 11,000 people affected by T1D. Together, these components are helping people with T1D become "Citizen Scientists," enabling them to more readily participate in accelerating the pace of research and discovery, and improving their own treatment and care along the way. In 2015, the T1D Exchange will engage the patient community in a range of research studies about potential new treatments and devices, as well as disease characteristics and impacts across different demographic groups.
2) Devices that communicate.
Better devices are emerging, and interoperability paves the way for different medical devices to talk to each other. Partnering with the JDRF, the Helmsley Charitable Trust is funding work in 2015 that aims to begin facilitating the adoption and implementation of interoperability standards among diabetes devices so that individuals with T1D, caregivers and clinicians can use device data to improve their management of type 1 diabetes and ease the 24/7 burden of the disease.
3) A landscape of insulin access.
Global mapping will help us develop a comprehensive understanding of gaps and needs in the insulin market. While T1D in the U.S. is neither a safe nor a well-managed disease, it can be a death sentence in some low- and middle -- income countries. With Helmsley's support, Health Action International will assemble a team of global experts to create a first-of-its-kind map of barriers to insulin in under-resourced countries and develop new supply models -- so as to reduce those barriers and improve life quality and expectancy for people living with diabetes.
Here's to a healthy and innovative 2015.
David Panzirer is a parent of a child with type 1 diabetes and a trustee at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the largest private foundation funder of T1D-related research, treatment and support services in the nation.