My Own Injection
Politics, Money and Diabetes

Can the next president help cure diabetes by lobbying for more research dollars?

This month’s cover story focuses on getting more money from the government to help find a cure for diabetes. I support this. But many I have talked to wonder what happened to the $442 million we spent last year for diabetes and all the money NIH has spent during the past 35 years. I don’t know if we have anything to show for it, as most advances that affect you and me have come from private industry.

Will tripling funding for diabetes research to $1.6 billion by 2004 get us closer to a cure? I feel like we need to focus not only on the amount we spend, but also on what we spend it on. A disease as devastating as diabetes certainly deserves as much research money as cancer or AIDS/HIV but, at the same time, I get a little frustrated by all the pork-barrel spending that goes on. It seems like, out of force of habit, millions of dollars are pumped into projects that clearly don’t work.

Lobby for more accountability

We did a survey two years ago and an overwhelming majority of our readers believe that the current diabetes research funding system needs to be reformed. One reader suggested that we go even further and reform the entire education system: In the long run, the number of people qualified to do research is an even more stringent limit than funding and a lot more difficult to change. Changes need to start at the very basis of education and society. Yet public support for real changes in education is virtually nil.”

Another reader wrote, “The NIH ought to be able to produce a yearly accounting of its expenditures along with a summary of the advances made.” Another adds, “I think a $300 million reward for a cure would generate a lot more progress than a $300 million grant.”

80 Years and Counting

Insulin was not discovered in a big government lab with a huge government grant. Instead, it was created by two Canadians, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who were experimenting on their own with a very small budget. They eventually kept a severely diabetic dog alive for 70 days by injecting it with a murky concoction of canine pancreas extract, and the rest is history. For almost 80 years, their discovery has remained the biggest breakthrough in diabetes care. Penicillin, which has also saved millions of lives, was also accidentally discovered by Fleming in a neglected petri dish.

Are Billions of Dollars Really Necessary for the Cure?

I just got a phone call from a friend of mine, who coincidentally has the same name as me. He is the founder of a three-person research company called Islet Sheet Medical ( Scott, also a type 1, is working on a cure for diabetes.

“Scott, we’ve done it,” he told me with jubilation. “Our dogs have been euglycemic for a whole month without insulin or immunosuppression of any kind.”

Scott and his colleagues have invented a very thin “sheet” made out of refined seaweed. Like a sandwich, islets are placed between two layers of his sheet and then transplanted into diabetic dogs. Scott is especially excited by the fact that, as opposed to individually encapsulated islets, these sheets can be retrieved from the body. The sheets allow the islet cells greater access to nutrients, and can easily be removed if something goes wrong. Best of all, this process requires no medication to suppress the immune system.

So far, experiments have been performed on two dogs, and after 30 days with the new cells, they are still off insulin.

What about false hope? Why write about this at such a beginning stage?

Scott told me, “We are not at a beginning stage. We are now doing pre-clinical trials. This is not a mouse, rat or a dog that we have filled with drugs. This is not just one of the ‘promising approaches’ we read about so often. This is the approach that I believe will work in people.”

Scott told me that he does not need millions and millions of dollars to test his technology because it truly works. He is convinced that he has found the cure for diabetes.

“Our competitors have spent $200 million and not achieved what we have,” says Scott. “I have only spent $300,000. While others have spent millions on things that can in no way produce a cure (like basic research).”

Big Things in Smaller Packages

I find it encouraging that Scott has managed to bring such an important project this far on his “little-engine-that-could” budget. Islet Sheet Medical may very well have made the breakthrough discovery we need to cure this disease.

This is not to suggest that we trim back the diabetes research budget and return to making medical advances in isolated backyard laboratories, but we must demand more accountability from the large institutions who have been awarded these billions of dollars.

Scott M. King
25 Years with Diabetes

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