Friday, 7 May 2010

How Research Will Conquer Diabetes in the Future

How Research Will Conquer Diabetes in the Future

Today, 1.7 million Canadians have diabetes. But 10 years from now, there will be 3.7 million.

To give you an idea of how fast diabetes is accelerating, in 1980, 30 million people worldwide lived with diabetes. Last year, there were 285 million, and by 2030, about 400 million people will have it. That’s almost as many people as there are living in North America today.

Given this, diabetes forces us to answer some awkward questions: How are we going to manage the billions of new dollars our health-care systems will have to spend to control it? How are the families of diabetics going to manage their anguish at lives cut short because of the effects, such as heart disease? How is India, which now has more diabetics than Canada has people, going to cope with a disease that’s spreading faster than malaria?

We can ask people to change their diet and lifestyle. Some will. Many won’t. But even if everyone did, Type 1 diabetes has little to do with what we eat or how we live, and Type 2 can never be completely controlled by diet and lifestyle.

The answer to this crisis is research, which is why the Harry Rosen Diabetes Chair in Stem Cell Research in the McEwen Centre has been established as part of Toronto’s University Health Network.

From the beginning of human history until 1921, if you were afflicted with diabetes, your life was nasty, brutish and short. Diabetes was a death sentence. Few diabetics lived past the age of 10. Then, two Canadian researchers discovered insulin.

As the noted geneticist Craig Venter once said: “A physician or surgeon in their careers has the opportunity to save at most hundreds or perhaps a few thousand lives. A research doctor has the chance to save millions.” And that’s what Frederick Banting and Charles Best did. That’s what research did to fight diabetes 89 years ago and that’s what research will do to vanquish diabetes in the years to come.

Not only are there more stem cell researchers in Toronto than anywhere else, their work is already changing the direction in broad areas of research into cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, toxicology and spinal cord injuries.

We seem to do things in pairs here: Banting and Best discovered insulin; and James Till and Ernest McCulloch discovered blood-forming stem cells more than 40 years ago at the Ontario Cancer Institute.

Their legacy, as with every medical researcher, lives on in the literally millions of people whose lives will grow longer, happier and richer because of discoveries made today and tomorrow by the Toronto stem cell community.

But there is more to be done. We can also urge our governments to commit much more funding to medical research than they do now. While Canada has a strong innovation agenda, by any measure, the funding to fuel innovation in medical research is drastically small. The world of bio science, including stem cell research, is filled with entrepreneurs, turning scientific discovery not only into cures, but into jobs and companies and new business sectors and entire economies. Our governments simply must invest more in this sector than they’re now doing or, like a diabetic without insulin, it will wither and die.

Fifty years from now, it will be good to look back on the work being done by the groundbreaking scientists of today and think how quaint and uninformed it all was.

That’s the real marker for success in the business of discovery, the fact that the future can be so different and so much better than the present.

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