From the President, Medicine & Science Address

The American Diabetes Association’s President, Medicine & Science, Robert Henry, MD, gave an address today at Scientific Sessions in which he shared his own views of progress made in diabetes care since he started in the field in the 1970s. Here are some pieces of what he said:

In these last 30 years or so, there have been countless discoveries and developments that have improved the lives of those with diabetes. I am often surprised to hear people say that they feel there has been little progress since the discovery of insulin. Progress in science is so rarely immediately transformative.

Instead, it is more often step-wise, beginning with a new insight of discovery, followed by painstaking characterization and confirmation of the initial observation. Finally, a discovery is translated into the clinic, leading to changes in how we view a disease, and a new set of treatment strategies.

While many of these discoveries by themselves may seem relatively modest, each has gradually been woven into multiple aspects of diabetes care, strengthening the underlying fabric and foundation that we can continue to build upon. To really appreciate these advances, we much look back over a longer period of time, 10, 20, or 30 years. When we do that, we can readily appreciate just how much things have really changed.

Dr. Henry then reflected back to the 1970s, when insulin syringes were glass and needles were large and had to be sharpened and sterilized for re-use. At that time, clinics would always be held in the morning so patients could come in early for a fasting blood glucose measurement.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s, he said, that self-monitoring of blood glucose started to become a regular part of diabetes care. It was also then that human insulin was approved – the only insulins before then had been derived from pigs and cows.

Over the next ten years, researchers and health care professionals learned more and more about the secretion of insulin in type 2 diabetes and, in the subsequent ten years, have developed drugs to help with glucose control, leading to a reduction in some of the serious diabetes complications. 

At the same time, more and more was understood about the autoimmune basis that leads to the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in type 1 diabetes. Dr. Henry reminded the audience to pay attention to more sessions over the next few days in which new research has used the findings for ten or more years ago to explore new type 1 diabetes treatments.

Dr. Henry continued:

Clearly, the most important goal is prevention of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The goal is in our sight, but we also must strive to continue to improve the lives of those with diabetes through better access and better therapies to improve quality of life and prevent complications.

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