When people think about the most common causes of death in America, certainly cancer, heart attack and stroke are top of mind. But you should know diabetes is the seventh leading cause, and that it’s likely much higher given how often it is underreported. Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body regulates blood sugar. Uncontrolled blood sugar, the primary symptom of diabetes, greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, gastroparesis, eye disease, Alzheimer’s disease and hospitalization with COVID-19.
In 2018, the American Diabetes Association reported that more than 10% of the U.S. population had diabetes, and that millions may be suffering from this disease but have not yet been diagnosed. And, in addition to the toll it takes in lives, diabetes costs the U.S. $327 billion in direct health care costs and lost productivity.
To understand diabetes it’s important to know there are two common types, Type 1 and Type 2. (Gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy, also is common but for the purpose of this column let us focus on the two long-term types of diabetes.)
Type 1 diabetes means the body’s pancreas is unable to produce adequate amounts of insulin, the chemical that regulates blood sugar. A person with Type 1 diabetes is usually born with this disease and can show symptoms as a child.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the cells in the body become less sensitive to insulin and the pancreas cannot produce enough to overcome this cellular resistance. Common risk factors for type 2 diabetes include being overweight, having a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, and having high blood pressure and/or cholesterol.
Family history can play a role in the risk factors of both Type 1 and 2 diabetes as well.
Knowing the signs of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes is important. Frequent urination, extreme hunger, unexplained weight loss, blurred vision, slow-healing sores, and frequent infections of the gums and skin can all be indicators of uncontrolled blood sugar. If you have any of these symptoms it's important to speak with a primary care physician to be properly diagnosed and discuss possible treatment options.
Now that I have described the problem, here’s the current treatment and maybe a reason for optimism among the millions of people affected by diabetes. Currently, for people diagnosed with Type 1, the treatment requires continual blood sugar monitoring and management through supplemental insulin. For people with Type 2 diabetes, more physical activity and healthier food choices can help manage symptoms but supplemental insulin and monitoring is often involved. However, Betalin Therapeutics, an Israeli pharmaceutical company, is developing an engineered micro-pancreas using bio-artificial technology. This device is about 7 millimeters long and contains human beta cells. Beta cells are the cells in the pancreas that manufacture insulin.
Betalin’s device would be implanted under the skin of the leg, requiring only local anesthesia for the procedure. The beginning trials look promising. Studies in mice showed that 70% did not need any insulin injections for 90 days after the procedure. Human trials will be essential in determining if this product will be long-lasting, and Betalin is hoping to begin testing this device in Europe next year. If all goes well, the company expects to have the product on the market in 2024.
An implantable device could be a game-changer for people struggling with diabetes and I am hopeful this new technology will successfully move through the testing process. In the meantime, untreated diabetes remains one of the most dangerous diseases facing our nation. It’s important to know the signs and to take treatment seriously. For questions or for more information about diabetes please reach out to your primary care physician or visit centura.org/care-and-health/primary-care.
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