Jeanette Forbes: There’s new hope for people living with type 1 diabetes

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It always surprises me that science subjects in schools and universities have waned in popularity, particularly among young girls and women.

Yet, science and technology can – and is – changing the world and I believe wholeheartedly that the aspiration to do something amazing exists no less now than it did 20, or even 50, years ago. We need to harness this ambition and channel it.

I was recently introduced to the type 1 diabetes research charity JDRF. I learned that not only was a Scot instrumental in the discovery of insulin nearly 100 years ago, but that Scotland today has vast expertise and resources for the development of new treatments for the condition.

Type 1 diabetes can affect anyone, at any age. It isn’t caused by lifestyle. In fact, it isn’t caused by anything that a person does or doesn’t do. There is nothing to prevent it.

The immune system – which is meant to protect the body from viruses and bacteria – attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, that produce insulin. We don’t yet fully understand why this happens. Thanks to an incredible network of research, people with type 1 diabetes are now living longer, healthier lives than ever before and the path to the bigger goal – the cure – is accelerating all the time.

Now, as Chairman of the Scottish Development Group for the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, I believe Scotland possesses the motivation and expertise to play a very significant role in this global endeavour.

The motivation begins from the sobering fact that Scotland has the third highest incidence of type 1 diabetes in the world. More than 30,000 adults and children live with the condition within our nation.

The expertise is apparent in our universities, biotech companies and life-science organisations.

A new study into a treatment for one of the most common complications of type 1 diabetes is being led by Prof John Petrie of the University of Glasgow.

Over time, high blood glucose levels can cause damage to the large blood vessels of the heart, leading to an increased risk of heart failure. For the moment, regular check-ups are essential to catch the signs early, but the new study offers hope of a different course.

The results of Dr Petrie’s trials, called REMOVAL, show how the drug metformin has potentially beneficial effects on cardiovascular and metabolic outcomes in adults with longstanding type 1 diabetes.

Heart disease is the most common cause of reduced life expectancy in people with type 1 diabetes, yet, in Scotland, only 15 per cent of adults with the condition have ever received metformin, and only 8 per cent are taking it at any one time.

The REMOVAL trial has provided clinically meaningful data on metformin’s potential to positively impact cardiovascular disease among particular people with type 1 diabetes at a higher risk of heart problems.

Elsewhere, the University of Edinburgh is spearheading islet cell transplantation and new technology has provided people with insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors to vastly reduce the endless injections. All these advances have been funded in part by JDRF and the charity is open for business here in Scotland to support new research that moves us closer to a world without type 1.

Like all charities, we need funds and raising money is part of my job. However, our aim is also to excite the research community and life-science sector to step forward and be part of the movement that will ultimately find the cure for the 30,000 in this country, the 400,000 across the UK and an estimated 35 million worldwide all living with the condition.

Being based in Aberdeen, I am often reminded that a former PhD student of Aberdeen University and biochemist, JJR Macleod, is widely credited for his role in the discovery of insulin.

That historical link makes me believe that we can – and should – do so much more. I am in awe of the scientific research that is currently happening in type 1 diabetes, from the artificial pancreas to beta cell replacement, and want to emphasise that we can all play an important part in finding the cure. One day I hope those affected by type 1 will say they used to have this condition but through research they do not have this condition today.

Jeanette Forbes is Chairperson of 
the Scottish Development Group for JDRF