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Enjoying the sandy beaches and mountainous terrain of the Italian island of Sardinia, as a child Anna Casu didn’t realize she was growing up in one of the world’s five Blue Zones. The people who live there have an exceptional longevity. In fact, Sardinia has nearly ten times more centenarians per capita than the U.S. Interestingly, Sardinia is also known to have one of the highest incidences of Type 1 Diabetes, and Anna was no exception. Feeling extremely tired, foggy, and always thirsty, Anna showed the usual warning signs. She was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 6.
The approach to treating it was very different than it is today. ”I injected porcine and bovine insulin, since human recombinant insulin did not exist. The finger pricking did not exist,” Anna remembered.
Anna’s diagnosis changed her life. “My drive for medical school was because people always said to me that being a doctor was something difficult to do. It was hard. It was a lot of work.”
Anna’s mom would not let her daughter’s diagnosis hold her back. “My mom always told me, ‘Anna, you should be independent. You have no limitations. You should be as good as all the other kids.’ ”
Mother knows best. Anna excelled at the University of Caligari, Italy, finding her calling as an endocrinologist and helping other people with diabetes live their best life. She then moved to Pittsburgh where she worked at the Division of Immunogenetics studying an endless source of cells from pigs that could be transplanted to cure Type 1 Diabetes. A few years later Dr. Casu moved back to Italy, leading an islet and pancreas transplantation program in Sicily when she got the call from TRI.
“I received this opportunity, and it was an unbelievable place to me. And I really enjoyed the fact that there is a focus on metabolism, obesity, and exercise.”
Fast-forward three years and Dr. Casu is all in. Honored to come to TRI as the von Weller Family Chair in Type 1 Diabetes Research, she has the rare opportunity to focus her research in areas that will have a greater impact on this disease.
“I could not have had the opportunity to bring forward my research without the commitment of the von Weller family and the other donors. Furthermore, the endowment allows me to support innovative research that is often difficult to get funded because it is too new.”
Dr. Casu focuses her work on delaying or even preventing the onset of Type 1 Diabetes. One area of study is understanding how Islet cells interact with other cells in the pancreas. “Type I Diabetes is not just due to the immune system attacking the pancreas, but the pancreas itself is doing something harmful. What starts this process? Hopefully, the more we understand about the mechanisms of why it happens, we will learn how to delay it and even prevent it.”
Dr. Casu’s work is also focusing on biomarkers of the disease, trying to find evidence of diabetes before it develops. “We are getting so close to being able to delay the onset of it.” She hopes that by finding these answers, her work at TRI will help improve millions of people’s lives. “I want people to be confident that research will bring us better things, a better quality of life, and better treatments.”
Just as science has done in the past, Dr. Casu believes that science will prevail in the future fight against Diabetes.
“If I have to think about my life with Type I Diabetes, things have changed a lot. My mom used to boil my syringe to sterilize it. Now I have this semi-automatic pump that gives me insulin based on my glucose levels.”
If you’re wondering what Dr. Anna Casu’s favorite Italian dish is, wonder no more. “My favorite dish has to be ravioli and a special flatbread called Pane Carasau, first made by shepherds in Sardinia. It’s crunchy, and you can eat it like potato chips. It's great.”
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