Karly Lewis was devastated to learn that she has type 1 diabetes. The 17-year-old had witnessed her sister’s struggle to keep the disease under control and knew that her own life was about to change.
And it did. First she had to learn how to count carbohydrates, calculate her insulin doses and give herself injections. Next came an insulin pump. That meant getting acclimated to the technology while answering constant questions from classmates.
“It was a very big life change for me,” said Lewis.
Still, Lewis didn’t hesitate when her doctor asked her to participate in research that could eventually help prevent or delay the onset of type 1 diabetes.
“I just really wanted to make my diabetes something positive rather than something so negative,” she says. “Maybe I could contribute something good and help find a cure so that another kid doesn’t have to go through this one day.”
People diagnosed with type 1 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that allows the body to use sugar (glucose) as a source of fuel. That’s because type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, prompts the body’s immune system to attack insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Once enough beta cells are destroyed, the body can no longer process glucose.
University of Minnesota Health physicians—many of whom also conduct research at the University of Minnesota—are developing treatments and technologies to improve the lives of kids with diabetes.
Pediatric Endocrinologist Antoinette Moran, MD, leads the research study Lewis joined. Moran and her team are evaluating whether a medication can prevent the immune system from attacking beta cells—or at least slow it down—in newly diagnosed patients. Antibodies appear in the bloodstream before the disease develops, Moran said, serving as a biological cue that diabetes is emerging.
“We target the immune system with medication to see if we can stop it from progressing to diabetes,” she says,” Moran said. “We can’t cure diabetes and bring back beta cells that are already gone, but we’re trying to save the ones that are there.”
Moran isn’t the only University of Minnesota Health specialist involved in diabetes research. Pediatric Endocrinologist Brandon Nathan, MD, has partnered with Medtronic Inc. to improve insulin pump technology.
Today’s insulin pumps represent a huge improvement over multiple-times-daily insulin injections—and the majority of people who have type 1 diabetes now use one. But current users must tell their pumps when and how much insulin to deliver based on their blood sugar and diet. The Medtronic 530G pump uses continuous glucose monitoring to assess current conditions. If glucose levels are too low, it will turn off insulin automatically to prevent dangerous hypoglycemic episodes.
It’s the first pump in the United States to respond to data it collects and alter insulin delivery—called a threshold suspend pump. Although this pump has been on the market for several years for adults, it has not been thoroughly evaluated in children. Nathan’s one-year study evaluates the pump’s effectiveness in kids ages 2 to 15.
Sometimes communication barriers prevent families from optimally managing their kids’ diabetes.
Pediatric Endocrinologist Muna Sunni, MBBCh, is leading a joint effort between University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota to develop educational materials for Somali families.
Produced in Somali, the videos and other resources seek to overcome cultural gaps and barriers with information that covers mealtime customs, religious practices and food preferences. In the process, the doctors created a model that could be used for other minority communities.
It’s just another way that University of Minnesota physicians and scientists are finding ways to improve the lives of children—from all cultures and backgrounds— who have diabetes.
Karly Lewis, for one, is glad to participate in the research.
“Not many people can say they were part of a trial that might one day find a cure for a huge disease,” she says. “It has been a really cool opportunity.”