In the United States alone, more than 20 million people have diabetes. That’s according to Paul Robertson, president of Medicine & Science at the American Diabetes Association.
Paul Robertson With all diabetes, the diagnosis is made because blood glucose, or blood sugar levels, rise above normal.
He said that diabetes is so devastating because it’s a progressive illness that does lots of organ damage, and the disease gets worse with time.
Paul Robertson: The longer that the blood glucose levels stays elevated, the more damage it does to very important tissues in the body. Actually it damages the pancreas itself, after a while.
The pancreas is the organ that helps the body regulate blood sugar. So it’s a vicious cycle, he said, and the cause is still unknown. Robertson is investigating the possibility that diabetes might be triggered, in part, by an accumulation of toxic molecules in the body – what’s called oxidative stress.
Paul Robertson: Oxidative stress is an accumulation of molecules that come about because of chemical reactions, of stuff we ingest, things that get in our body. These can get inside the cell and really wreak havoc, not only with cellular function, but with the DNA inside the cell.
Dr. Robertson was recently awarded almost 2 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Defense to see if a kind of molecule called antioxidants – ordinary vitamins like C and E, for instance – might protect cells against damage from oxidative stress.
Paul Robertson: Which means that it becomes a vicious cycle going forward – the disease gets worse with time.
He said that the high blood sugar common in diabetes patients can help accelerate oxidative stress.
Paul Robertson: If you have an excess amount the body doesn’t know what to do with it.
Robertson explained that these molecules are actually unstable forms of oxygen.
Paul Robertson: We have a lot of new information about why it is that oxidative stress is associated with complications of diabetes. There are enzyme deficiencies in certain tissues, so that if you replace those enzymes through genetic methods, that you will actually reverse the complications of diabetes. So that leads to the challenge of finding a drug that will do the same thing, because we can’t be giving people new genes to fight hyperglycemia and its adverse affects.
He added that the high blood sugar common in diabetes patients can help accelerate the accumulation of oxidants, or oxidative stress.
Paul Robertson: If you have an excess amount, the body doesn’t know what to do with it.
Robertson added that the damage caused by diabetes is not just physical, but also economic:
Paul Robertson: I have friends in India, China who are scared of what the costs of treating diabetes could do to their economies 15-20 years from now.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.