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Tackling Type 1 Diabetes – Where are we on Technology and Research?

Last updated: 7/26/21
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By Andrew Briskin

Andrew Briskin joined the diaTribe Foundation in 2021 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Health and Societies. Briskin is an Editor for diaTribe Learn.

At the Milken Institute 2021 Future of Health Summit, leading experts in type 1 diabetes research and innovation discussed the path toward a cure, the latest in glucose monitoring technology, and the importance of screening for type 1 diabetes.

A group of leading experts in type 1 diabetes research and innovation took part in the panel discussion, “Tackling Type 1 Diabetes: Where the Science is Heading” at the Milken Institute 2021 Future of Health Summit last month. They exchanged insights on the advantages of continuous glucose monitoring, automated insulin delivery (AID), Time in Range for better diabetes management, as well as tantalizing new possibilities for curing type 1 diabetes.

The discussion from June 22nd was moderated by diaTribe Founder Kelly Close and included:

  • Aaron Kowalski, Ph.D. – CEO, JDRF International

  • Shideh Majidi, M.D. – Assistant Professor, Pediatric Endocrinology, Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes

  • Felicia Pagliuca, Ph.D.  – Vice President and Disease Area Executive, Type 1 Diabetes, Vertex Pharmaceuticals

  • David A. Pearce, Ph.D. – President of Innovation, Research and World Clinic, Sanford Research

The panelists began by discussing how continuous glucose monitors (CGM) now provide people with type 1 diabetes even more information and the power to manage their glucose levels. CGM data provides people with crucial metrics such as Time in Range (TIR), which corresponds to the percent of time someone spends within their target glucose range – usually 70 to 180 mg/dL. This target glucose range may vary though, for example, if you are pregnant. You can learn more about the helpful metrics that CGM provides here. Alongside A1C, TIR allows more insight into your day-to-day diabetes management by showing fluctuations in glucose levels caused by factors like meals, exercise, illness, and more.

However, CGM is not perfect or widely accessible yet. The panelists touched on this issue of access to CGM and the existing disparities in care across race and type of insurance. Dr. Majidi emphasized that in populations with access to this technology, CGM use has increased from 20% to over 80% of patients over the last five years. However, some studies have shown that providers tend to prescribe technology only to certain patients due to unconscious biases about which patients may be able to handle using advanced technology. 

Advocating for early and consistent training for healthcare providers on addressing these biases, as well as provider and patient education on CGM and other technologies for glucose management, Dr. Majidi said, “we need to look at these unconscious biases to start providing everyone with the opportunity to use and learn about new technology.”

The panel then explored the advantage of AID hybrid closed-loop systems. These systems combine a CGM, insulin pump, and an algorithm that allows the CGM and insulin pump to talk to each other. Dr. Kowalski said he was especially encouraged by the advancements in AID systems, emphasizing that it not only decreases the number of highs and lows, but it also removes much of the burden of diabetes management from patients and their families. 

AID systems especially benefit families with children who have diabetes, reducing concerns from parents about the safety of their children during the night or at other times when the risk of hypoglycemia is high. The panelists said they were hopeful that these new innovations are bringing us closer to developing a fully closed-loop artificial pancreas, which could automatically respond to changes in glucose in real time without the need for a person to deliver manual boluses or calibrations. 

Echoing their advice on how to address disparities in CGM use, the panelists noted the importance of education for healthcare providers to combat disparities in prescribing AID to ensure equal opportunity for all to achieve better health outcomes.

The discussion then shifted to the latest research towards a cure for type 1 diabetes, focusing on beta cell replacement therapies. Because type 1 diabetes occurs as a result of the body’s immune system attacking and destroying its own pancreatic beta cells (the cells that make insulin), scientists have been researching how to replenish the beta cell population from stem cells. Scientists believe that stem cells, not yet fully differentiated or mature cells, could potentially be directed to become functioning beta cells. 

Dr. Pagliuca shared updates from her work at Vertex, studying stem cell-derived beta cell transplants in type 1 patients with impaired awareness of hypoglycemia. This initial study relies on systemic immunosuppressive drugs (these are drugs that “turn off” the body’s immune system so it won’t attack the implanted cells) to protect the implanted beta cells. The hope is that future studies will seek to use a different method called encapsulation, which protects beta cells from the immune system with a physical barrier, avoiding the need for immunosuppressant medications. 

So far, with the successful conversion of stem cells into mature beta cells accomplished in controlled lab settings, the science has developed to the point of testing stem cell-derived beta cells in clinical trials, with Vertex first clinical trial now enrolling patients. This initiative will encompass the entire type 1 community, with Dr. Pagliuca stressing that “transitioning these breakthroughs into the clinical phase will require participation from all stakeholders, patients, researchers, and healthcare providers.”

Considering the latest research into the immunobiology of type 1 diabetes, the panelists advocated for significant increases in screening for type 1 across the general population. 

Dr. Pearce advised that testing for the presence of specific autoantibodies (small molecules in the body that are the cause of the immune system attacking a person’s own beta cells) in the general population is essential for implementing prevention programs, given that the presence of at least two of these autoantibodies is a very predictive measure to assess the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. 

According to him, the predictive power of these screenings make it is possible to classify an individual as having type 1 diabetes years in advance of any symptoms, even while they still have normal glycemic control. In this way, type 1 diabetes can be classified into 3 stages – stage 1 is when someone has two or more diabetes-associated autoantibodies, but normal glycemia and no symptoms. Stage 2 is when you have the autoantibodies, have begun to develop glucose intolerance or abnormal glycemia, but still no symptoms. Stage 3 is when symptoms begin and you are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Classifying diabetes in this way and identifying those in the early stages could increase patient involvement in clinical trials, and help connect individuals to new drugs such as teplizumab (not yet approved by the FDA), that aim to delay the onset of symptomatic type 1 diabetes or prevent it altogether.

Drs. Pearce and Kowalski agreed, recommending a screening strategy involving primary care providers and screening children during the toddler years. On the importance of this screening process for involvement in clinical trials, Dr. Kowalski noted, “Diabetes is a global problem. The voice of the patient is hugely important on new devices and therapies, and clinical trial pathways are delayed when there isn’t equal participation in the trials.”

You can watch the panel discussion and hear insights from the four incredible experts here.

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