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Diabetes is an epidemic, not only in America but globally too. It’s a disease that affects people of all ages and stages of life, and one that requires a treatment approach as individualized as the patients themselves.
The good news? Diabetes can be treated and prevented. Groundbreaking research by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, doctors and experts in Orlando is deepening our understanding of diabetes to prevent, treat and someday cure this disease.
In light of Diabetes Awareness Month (November), we talked with four researchers at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute to understand how their work is challenging what we know about type 1 and type 2 diabetes, why this research matters for everyone and what they want you to know about diabetes.
Set Apart by Innovation: Diabetes Research at the TRI
Each day, the research team at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute in Orlando delves into how and why diabetes occurs, how it affects major organs and its connections to other diseases.
Richard Pratley, MD, is the Senior Investigator and Diabetes Program Lead at the TRI and has led the program for over eight years. His team studies problems that are common in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, instead of focusing on one specific aspect of diabetes, which is just one aspect that sets them apart from other institutions.
Specific Studies Empowering Discoveries
At the TRI, Dr. Pratley, along with a whole team of researchers, physicians and investigators, are currently conducting innovative research on:
- Better ways to diagnose type 1 diabetes at an early age by developing specific biomarkers of beta cell function (applicable to type 2 diabetes research, too)
- Biomarkers to detect kidney disease at an earlier stage, along with non-invasive imaging of kidney blood supply
- Characteristics of fat cells to understand how obesity impacts type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- Defects in metabolism which are responsible for many diseases, including diabetes
- Factors that slow the progression of type 1 diabetes (applicable to other autoimmune diseases, too)
- How type 1 and type 2 diabetes lead to kidney and liver disease
- How diabetes treatments can reduce the risk of heart disease, a significant issue in both types of diabetes
Not only are the findings from these studies essential for doctors to diagnose and treat diabetes with greater specificity and personalization, this work also benefits people of all ages, whether they have diabetes or know someone who does.
What Diabetes Researchers Want You to Know
Despite how common it is, diabetes is complex and often misunderstood. But the more researchers, patients and people like you understand this condition, the better-equipped everyone is to deal with diabetes.
Here’s what the world-class diabetes experts and researchers at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute want you to know.
1. Diabetes Affects Everyone
Virtually everyone either has diabetes, has a relative who has it or knows someone who has it. “Currently, over 30 million patients in the U.S. are affected by diabetes. That’s roughly 1 in 9 adults,” says Dr. Pratley.
Not only does diabetes affect everyone around you in one way or another, but it’s also an economic burden for the entire country.
“Because it is so common and associated with serious complications, diabetes is very expensive. The most recent figures from the American Diabetes Association indicate that diabetes costs over $340 billion annually in America,” Dr. Pratley says.
With these facts in mind, the researchers at the TRI aim to help slow the growth in diabetes prevalence as well as improve care for patients who are diagnosed with the disease, Dr. Pratley explains. “In the long run, that should help control health care costs for everyone,” he notes.
2. Type 1 Diabetes Is More Nuanced Than You Might Think
Most people know that type 1 diabetes develops in children but aren’t aware of the other important complexities of this disease.
Anna Casu, MD, is an Associate Investigator and von Weller Family Chair of type 1 diabetes research at the TRI. For Dr. Casu, diabetes research is a passion that’s also deeply personal, as she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of six.
Today, Dr. Casu aims to understand how and why adult-onset type 1 diabetes occurs — an area of research that few institutes study and a nuance of this disease that many people aren’t familiar with.
“Type 1 diabetes is indeed the most common endocrine disease of childhood; however, 40 to 50% of the people with type 1 diabetes are diagnosed after the age of 30,” she explains.
Age of onset is not the only surprising characteristic of type 1 diabetes. “Another common misconception is that people with type 1 diabetes are lean,” Dr. Casu says, speaking to another area of her research: obesity and weight gain in type 1 diabetes.
“Weight loss occurs at the time of diagnosis, particularly in children, but they gain weight as much as the general population, and even more at younger ages,” Dr. Casu says. “At the TRI, the collaboration with experts on adipose tissue and obesity will add vital information to understand the behavior of the fat tissue in type 1 diabetes,” Dr. Casu affirms.
Diabetes Research — and Treatment — Is Personal
While Dr. Casu was drawn to the research field after facing diabetes herself, all of the researchers at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute understand how individualistic metabolic diseases like diabetes are.
Because there’s no one-size-fits-all medicine or diet for diabetes, the researchers focus on what makes each person unique to understand why diabetes occurs in some people and not others. Understanding these differences empowers them to develop prevention and treatment strategies that can inform personalized medicine.
3. Diabetes Is Closely Linked to Kidney Disease
By itself, obesity is associated with kidney disease and it’s also a risk factor for diabetes. Having diabetes significantly raises a person’s risk of developing kidney disease.
“While we know that obesity is a risk factor for kidney disease, further information on the kidneys and their biomarkers will help guide the medical field in helping patients who may not have necessarily developed diabetes but are at risk for kidney disease due to obesity,” explains Tina K. Thethi, MD, MPH, FACE, an Endocrinologist and Associate Investigator at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute.
Dr. Thethi is designing a groundbreaking study that will use blood and urine biomarkers along with non-invasive imaging to study kidney disease in patients with and without diabetes — some of whom will be in the very early stages of kidney disease.
Dr. Thethi’s research aims to detect the onset of kidney disease earlier than is possible now, and this research can help prevent the further decline of kidney function in people who have this disease.
“Information on the biomarkers, and an understanding of the changes that occur in the kidneys in patients before their renal function starts to decline, will provide valuable insight into further direction to take on research for kidney disease,” she explains.
And research on kidney disease can benefit everyone, not just people who have kidney disease currently, but also those who are at risk of developing it. “Research on biomarkers to detect kidney disease stands to benefit the average person, whether they have diabetes or not,” explains Dr. Thethi.
4. People With Diabetes Face a High Risk of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is quickly becoming the most common chronic liver disease in America and globally. About 1 in 3 people have it, and some studies show that more than half of people with type 2 diabetes have it. Making matters worse, most people have no idea that they have it.
Dr. Karen Corbin, an Investigator at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute, focuses on studies to help people understand how to prevent, treat or cure diseases that are seen more often in people with diabetes, specifically NAFLD.
Dr. Corbin is making headway in NAFLD research through studying innovative aspects of metabolism, like the gut microbiome and biomarkers. “Many diseases, like diabetes, obesity, NAFLD, heart disease, and even cancer, occur due to a defect in metabolism,” she says.
“My work is focused not only on the super-geeky science to answer questions that have never been answered before, but I am also very passionate about educating people about their risks,” Dr. Corbin says. She aims to understand what makes each person unique, to better understand why some people have a higher risk of NAFLD and diabetes than others. “The more we educate our communities, the better we can prevent disease and find cures,” she says.
Dr. Corbin’s research matters for people who have diabetes and for those who love someone who does, too. “People with and without type 2 diabetes are at risk for NAFLD,” she explains.
“The diseases we study are very common, so if they do not impact you, they likely impact someone you care about. It is important to know your risk and we have studies that can help you understand that risk.”
5. You Are the Most Important Part of Diabetes Research
Through numerous studies at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute, Drs. Pratley, Casu, Thethi and Corbin have learned that diabetes, and its complications, can be prevented. But they need your help to continue their research.
“Any clinical and translational research needs a hypothesis, curiosity, skills, passion, funds, and most importantly, people willing to contribute some of their time to understand the mechanisms that govern and disrupt that perfect machine that is your body,” Dr. Casu says.
People just like you make this groundbreaking research possible. “As a member of the Central Florida community, you are our partner,” says Dr. Corbin. “We cannot make advances in medical science without the support of our community.”
The TRI needs people with diabetes and people who don’t have diabetes to participate in our studies. “This is the only way we can stem the tide of diabetes, its complications and reduce the costs of this disease in the long-run,” Dr. Pratley affirms.
We invite you to join us in a clinical trial at the TRI today. When you join one of our studies, you’re not only advancing diabetes research here in Orlando, but you’re empowering critical breakthroughs in the field of medicine overall that could benefit people of all ages around the globe. Together, we can be one step closer to finding a cure for diabetes.
Dedicated to Advancing Diabetes Research and Treatment
Every scientist, clinician and researcher at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute is committed to advancing the understanding of metabolic diseases through innovative translational research.
It’s our goal to challenge what we know about obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases so that we can discover treatments — and ultimately, cures — for these conditions that help people not only feel better but feel whole.
“As diabetes research continues to advance steadily, you have every reason to hope for even more breakthroughs soon,” Dr. Casu says. “Today, it may seem that progress moves slowly, but it is significant. Science progresses! Be optimistic!”
Learn more about the TRI facility, from our metabolic kitchen to our exercise testing center, meet our team members or enroll in one of our current clinical trials today.