Crucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research

Crucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research
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More than 1.25 million Americans live with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and 40,000 are diagnosed each year. As an autoimmune response that damages the body’s cells that make insulin, it requires constant management to avoid dangerously high or low blood sugar levels.

I too live with type 1 diabetes, and have since the age of 13. Diabetes impacts every aspect of life — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — but today we can better manage this disease and we’re steps closer to cures, thanks to federal funding for T1D research provided through the Special Diabetes Program (SDP).

The foresight to invest in a multi-year renewal has been championed by leaders in Congress. Most recently, Senate Diabetes Caucus Co-Chairs Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes MORE (R-Maine) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGraham, Van Hollen introduce Turkey sanctions bill Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing US envoy insists Syria pullout doesn't affect Iran strategy MORE (D-N.H.), and Congressional Diabetes Caucus Co-Chairs Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteA dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal FDA under pressure to move fast on vaping Lawmakers criticize EPA draft rule for curbing rights to challenge pollution permits MORE (D-Colo.) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedNo Labels' fight against partisanship 25 years of championing successful community development Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week MORE (R-N.Y.), led sign-on letters to their respective leadership calling for the SDP’s renewal and that of its sister program, the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI). These letters, signed by 68 senators and 378 representatives, clearly demonstrate strong bipartisan support for the programs.

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And just past week, Collins and ranking member Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyHere are the Senate Democrats backing a Trump impeachment inquiry over Ukraine call Ex-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs The Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging led a hearing that highlighted advances from the SDP and the critical need for continued funding for SDP research, which is currently set to expire by Sept. 30, 2019.

As a scientist by training, I’ve seen firsthand how this combination of federal diabetes research funding and private investment from organizations like JDRF constitutes one of the most effective public-private partnerships focused on curing a chronic disease.

In recent months we’ve seen great progress in SDP-funded research. Clinical studies of a new artificial pancreas system have showed effective insulin delivery to help maintain healthier blood sugar levels, and we will soon have access to multiple, FDA-approved systems that enable more choices for people to manage their diabetes.

There has also been significant progress in immunotherapies, the treatment of disease by modulating the immune system, thanks to research funded by the SDP. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that an immunotherapy drug can delay the onset of T1D an average of two years in children and adults. I cannot emphasize enough how important this finding is, as any delay in diagnosis improves health outcomes and will have a tremendous impact to both those with T1D and the overall U.S. health system.

Yet while we have made progress, there is still important work to be done.

Through the SDP, we need to invest in beta cell research and understand how and why the immune system acts the way it does to make progress toward curing T1D. These answers would have implications for numerous diseases, from multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis to cancer.

We also need to better understand what triggers T1D onset. An SDP-funded study is underway with 8,600 children determined to be at-risk of developing T1D to understand what environmental factor or factors trigger disease onset. It is crucial that we finish this study and analyze the results so we can learn what causes T1D and develop strategies to prevent it altogether.

And we need to reduce the burden from kidney and heart disease, both of which impact those with diabetes more than the general population. There is an SDP-funded trial testing whether generic medication may halt or slow the progression of early kidney disease in people with T1D, yet another example of how SDP is filling critical gaps as pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to test for new uses of a generic drug.

SDP-funded research is too important to have an expiration date. We are grateful that both the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has advanced a multi-year renewal of the SDP and SDPI. These are promising developments that get us one step closer to long-term funding.

In 2017, when the SDP renewal was delayed, enrollment was postponed in a critical T1D prevention trial. By the time the funding was in place, some people who would have been eligible for the clinical trial had already developed full onset T1D and could no longer participate. With continuous funding, their diagnosis potentially could have been delayed.

The National Institutes of Health cannot start new clinical trials, or continue trials already underway, without secured funding. There are real implications that we cannot allow to happen, or risk slowing the momentum we’ve gained.

Aaron J. Kowalski, Ph.D., is president and CEO of JDRF, the leading global organization funding type 1 diabetes research. Kowalski testified last week before the Senate Special Committee on Aging about how the Special Diabetes Program is changing the lives of Americans with T1D.