Brussels, 06 Dec 2005
On 2 December, the European Parliament hosted a meeting gathering European stakeholders on type 1 diabetes and representatives of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), where support for a common research effort was pledged.
Research and healthcare political leaders from the European Commission and the European Parliament, scientists and representatives of patients discussed ways to reinforce their alliance and foster scientific cooperation with the JDRF, the leading charitable funder and advocate of juvenile diabetes research worldwide, with the goal of speeding up the hunt for a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Dr. Robert Goldstein, Chief Scientific Officer at JDRF, expressed his satisfaction: 'The partnership between JDRF and the EU provides a unique opportunity to open up the field of type 1 diabetes research in Europe by creating a collaborative and productive environment for scientists. Europe has some truly exciting research underway, and the importance of maintaining open channels of communication among scientists there cannot be underemphasised. We anticipate wonderful developments in the field of type 1 diabetes research as a result of this teamwork,' he added.
Diabetes is a disease that affects an estimated 19 million people in the 25 Member States of the European Union (over four per cent of the population), and is also a major cause of death. Diabetes reduces quality of life and often leads to other life-threatening conditions. The last 20 years have seen an explosive increase in diabetes globally, linked, among other factors, to the emergence of obesity.
'Type 1' diabetes represents around five to 10 per cent of all cases, and unlike Type 2 diabetes, which is usually weight-related, it occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (beta cells). Insulin is the hormone that helps the body move the glucose contained in food into cells throughout the body, which use it for energy. When the beta cells are destroyed, no insulin can be produced, and the glucose stays in the blood instead, where it can cause serious damage to organs.
The exact causes of this disorder, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes and juvenile diabetes as it generally diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults, are still unclear. Scientists believe that autoimmune, genetic, and environmental factors are involved. Currently, Type 1 patients must receive daily insulin doses just to stay alive, and must carefully monitor their diet and lifestyle to avoid long-term complications such as heart disease, amputations, kidney failure, and blindness. These complications result in disability and a reduced life expectancy for diabetic persons by up to 15 years. In addition to the human costs, the estimated financial costs of diabetes are enormous.
At present, no cure is widely available for diabetes: transplants of insulin-making cells from the pancreas, first from deceased donors and since last Spring from living donors, have been successfully used in experiments, opening up new prospects for insulin-dependent patients. But the technique of islet transplantation needs to be further perfected. Stem cell research is gathering pace and fuelling hopes, but finding a cure for diabetes may still take several years. Early detection and a combination of effective therapy and lifestyle intervention, diet, exercise and medication, can delay the onset of disease complications.
Aware of the urgent need for investment in European diabetes research, the European Commission is working to reduce fragmentation in EU research on diabetes and to promote scientific excellence. The European Commission has almost tripled its investment in diabetes research in the last few years, from 44.5 million euro in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) to 1 million euro under FP6.
'The issue of type 1 diabetes is quite serious to the European people because Europe is second only to South East Asia in prevalence of this insidious disease,' said Alain Vanvossel, Head of Unit, Major Diseases, at the Research Directorate General of the European Commission. 'The toll taken by diabetes on patients is very high, not mentioning the social costs of the disease. We are very pleased by the excellent collaboration between a reputed private charity like JDRF and a public institution like the European Commission. The resulting scientific synergies are of high value to patients.'
Last year, the first European summit on diabetes research was held in the European Parliament. It was the first time such a conference had been held in Europe. The meeting, the result of increased political lobbying by major diabetes associations, was regarded by some as a wake-up call to the European political establishment: act now before it is too late. One of the conclusions of the conference was that it is imperative to increase the efforts of international coordination in Europe.
It is not the first time that the European Union and the JDRF have combined efforts: the BetaCellTherapy consortium, involving 22 clinical and research organisations from eight countries, and working on a programme to develop ways to restore and protect insulin-producing beta cells in patients with diabetes, is backed by both FP6 and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.