As many as 24 million people worldwide have Juvenile or Type-I Diabetes. The autoimmune disease results in the total inability to make insulin, which the body needs to survive. A new study takes a closer look at why some people are living longer than others with the disease.
Maureen Murray was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when she was 12 years old. It was 1954, and Murray says that began a life-long battle to control her blood sugar levels. "You would take the insulin. You would have no idea what your blood sugars were."
Over the next 33 years, Maureen Murray repeatedly tested her urine and injected a dose of insulin many times a day. The process became easier in the mid-1980s, when the insulin pump and a glucose blood-testing machine became available. The pump mimics the pancreas and delivers insulin through plastic tubing inserted in her stomach. Extra insulin is programmed for meals.
Murray now wears a sensor embedded under her skin and carries a receiver that monitors blood sugar levels every five minutes. The information eliminates the need for multiple physical blood tests each day. "It's automatic, but maybe every 10 days you have a mini-breakdown," she says with laughter in her voice. "It is automatic and it is such a pleasure to be able to use this equipment, but it is exhausting."
While all this may seem complicated, Murray says the new medical tools have made her life much easier. Murray has had no diabetic complications in 53 years. But her case is rare. She credits her good health to an active lifestyle, a positive mental outlook, family and friends. She also holds down a full time job, keeps physically fit and eats well.
Murray has a lot in common with the 326 men and women who participated in the Joslin Diabetes Center Medalist study, presented at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation annual Conference in June.
The study compared physiological, clinical and genetic data for people who have been insulin dependent for 50 years or more. Joslin Director of Research and lead author George King says there was little evidence of micro-vascular disease. "About 30 percent of these individuals don't have any eye disease, kidney disease or nerve disease even after 50 years of diabetes."
King says the most remarkable finding was that the participants still had measurable levels of C-peptide, a protein fragment released by the pancreas… and a sign of insulin-producing islet cells. "If you look at those patients between 50 and even 70 years with diabetes, quite a few, about 20 percent of them, clearly have C-peptide, which suggests that they are making insulin."
King says the study opens new avenues for research and treatment of Type-1 Diabetes, which is good news to Maureen Murray, who hopes that she can live long enough to see a cure. When asked whether or not she would donate her pancreas to science when she dies, the answer was obvious. "And I said, 'Of course!' And if I could better the world by giving my pancreas to research, I couldn't think of anything more rewarding."
Researchers at the Joslin Diabetes Center are currently recruiting 300 more long-time juvenile diabetes survivors for Phase II of the study.