The Mass General Diabetes Unit is working toward a cure for the disease while making new and effective strides in prevention and treatment.

Could the steady increases in the incidence of diabetes be slowed, or even reversed? The Massachusetts General Hospital Diabetes Unit is making effective strides in prevention, working toward a cure and diminishing the impact of the disease.

Tackling Diabetes with Prevention

Some estimates suggest that one-third of the population of the U.S. will develop diabetes

Diabetes is a major, and growing, threat to the health of the population of the United States. The disease’s prevalence has been increasing among nearly every age group; perhaps most alarming is its development in younger people, since its devastating complications are more likely to occur with longer duration. Diabetes is also a particularly costly disease – it’s a chronic condition requiring years of care, and it is also associated with many other long-term conditions, including hypertension, heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness and amputations.

Some estimates suggest that one-third of the population of the U.S. will develop diabetes. But at Mass General, a different picture is coming into focus.

At the Fight’s Frontlines

The Mass General Diabetes Unit consists of the Diabetes Laboratory Research Program and the Diabetes Center.  The latter includes both the Diabetes Treatment Center and Clinical Research Center.

David M. Nathan, MD, director of the Mass General Diabetes Center
David M. Nathan, MD, director of the Mass General Diabetes Center

Since 1980, Mass General Diabetes Center has been a key player in the development and testing of new therapies for Type 1 (sometimes called juvenile-onset) and Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. “We are influencing real progress in the way the disease is being treated,” said David M. Nathan, MD, director of the Diabetes Center. “Although the epidemic is devastating to public health, we now know how to treat the individual patient to reduce the risk of complications. In addition, we are starting to see, for the first time in three decades, a decrease in the annual rate of new cases.”

At the Diabetes Center, the focus is on preventing the occurrence of diabetes. If it strikes, the Center works to minimize the complications from the disease and prevent its progress. As Mass General does in other fields, the Diabetes Center integrates care with research; because patients participate in research studies, they often benefit from study results. “State-of-the-art research is being conducted here, so our patients get to benefit from treatments first, before anyone else,” Dr. Nathan noted.

“Our strength is in the experience of our team,” continued Dr. Nathan. “We have nurse-practitioners, nurses, physicians and dieticians who have spent their careers figuring out how to take care of people with diabetes. Most of them also do research. They apply their research knowledge to care for their patients.”

Developing Effective Treatments

“Advances in the prevention of the Type 2 epidemic, combined with advances in therapy, mean improvement in lifetime health and outcomes.”

The Mass General Diabetes Unit has made a number of significant strides in treating Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes more effectively, reducing long-term damage. For example, they:

  • Led the study that showed how complications of Type 1 diabetes could be reduced by as much as 76%
  • Established the laboratory test that measures average blood sugar control and is used universally in research and clinical care
  • Developed one of the most commonly used drugs to treat Type 2 diabetes
  • Developed the first implantable pump to treat Type 1 diabetes and are now developing an artificial pancreas
  • Led a large-scale national study called the Diabetes Prevention Program, which demonstrated that the development of Type 2 diabetes was not inevitable and could be reduced by as much as 58% with a lifestyle intervention.

While national data indicates that up to one-third of the U.S. population is at risk for developing diabetes, prevention efforts have been effective; in fact, the incidence of diabetes is starting to decrease. “Advances in the prevention of the Type 2 epidemic, combined with advances in therapy, mean improvement in lifetime health and outcomes,” said Dr. Nathan. “Our ultimate goal is to eliminate diabetes, but until then we now have the tools to reduce all of the myriad complications that can cause amputations, kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks and stroke in our patients.”

Support from the MGH Fund is helping the Mass General Diabetes Unit lead the way in conquering the diabetes epidemic.