FORD: A public-private cure for diabetes

More research now will save billions in the future

My son has been a Type 1 diabetic for more than 15 years. Albert tests his blood sugars at least six or seven times a day and wears an insulin pump so his medication can be delivered continuously. Our country is facing a diabetes crisis. Alarming new research from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Type 1 diabetes (T1D) among Americans under age 20 rose by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009 and Type 2 diabetes in youths grew over the same period by 21 percent. Some data indicate the prevalence of T1D alone would double for every future generation. If that happens, T1D patients and families won’t be the only ones paying the price. The cost also will fall on an already burdened economy and federal budget.

The effects of diabetes are taking a toll. Diabetes contributes to more than 230,000 deaths annually. It is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke and the leading cause of kidney failure, adult blindness and amputations not related to injury. In 2007 alone, the United States spent an estimated $174 billion on the direct medical costs and indirect ones (productivity loss) of diabetes, and health costs are expected to triple in the next 25 years.

At a time when it is popular to criticize federal spending, there is one program already making a difference in harnessing the health effects of T1D and the collateral cost to taxpayers and the economy. The Special Diabetes Program (SDP) has led to new insights and therapies that are accelerating progress toward curing, treating and preventing T1D. As NIH recently said in a report to Congress, “Because of research progress over the last two decades, including research supported by the Special Diabetes Program, people with the disease are living longer and healthier lives than ever before and experiencing lower rates of disease complications.”

SDP-funded research has accelerated the development of artificial pancreas systems that will help patients with T1D and T2D better manage their blood sugar levels and reduce costly, burdensome complications. A recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard shows that development of the artificial pancreas would save Medicare almost $2 billion over 25 years - proof that today’s investments equal tomorrow’s savings.

Through the SDP, scientists have learned there is a link between tighter glucose control and fewer diabetes-related complications; they’ve also discovered new immune therapies that can slow the onset of T1D for a year. Researchers have made advances in transplanting and regenerating insulin-producing cells, and one striking SDP breakthrough has resulted in a combination drug and laser therapy that reverses vision loss in T1 and T2 diabetes patients.

SDP-funded scientists do early-stage and, often, high-risk research that private-sector scientists are unlikely to do. As this research shows promise, private funders take over to prove that a therapy works. Eventually, major biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies step in to do the final, costly work required to translate promising treatments from the laboratory to patients. As a businessman, I think that’s how government programs should work.Government funding stimulates private-sector investment, thereby exponentially increasing the value of public-private partnership.

The SDP offers our nation’s best effort to conduct the research needed to find a cure for and ease the economic burden of T1D. But unless Congress acts by the end of 2012, there is a real possibility that much of the striking progress made to date and the potential in front of us could be lost. Without the certainty of long-term funding, research will slow down or even stop.

As NIH said in its report to Congress, “The potential payoff from the investment in these large-scale, long-term studies is only beginning to be realized … . These efforts have set the stage for future research progress that is expected to be fully realized in the years to come. This important line of research could not be undertaken at all, or at least not at an unprecedented scale, without the financial and organizational resources of the Special Diabetes Program.”

At a time when every line item in the federal budget is subject to scrutiny, the real question for the SDP program is: How could we afford not to save it?

Edsel B. Ford II is a member of the board of directors of the Ford Motor Company.

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