Battling diabetes: no sign of slow-down 100 years on from discovery of insulin
Leonard Thompson was a 14-year-old boy when, in 1922, he became the first person living with diabetes to ever be saved by insulin treatment. That was just one year after insulin was discovered, and a year before Lilly became the first company to make insulin available commercially.
At the time, a Type-1 diagnosis was a death sentence, while today it can be managed and strides continue to be made to improve outcomes for patients. Innovations have gone from animal-based insulin to recombinant DNA insulin to today’s more modern analog insulins. And we have seen advances in technology from reusable syringes and needles through to the first pens, with the promise of digital health innovations in the pipeline. But there is perhaps a sense amongst some that diabetes is “fixed” and that it warrants less attention than other disease areas.
This has been reflected by a lack of prominence of diabetes on the EU agenda. 1 in 10 Europeans live with diabetes, while it is estimated that 38% of people with diabetes have not even been diagnosed. 1 The lack of close attention has moreover resulted in varied access across our continent: 2 innovations are often slow to be approved and the adoption of digital health innovations in particular have been unnecessarily sluggish in some countries. 3
The good news is that political stakeholders are starting to recognize the need for a concerted focus on diabetes. We’ve seen notable progress recently with the set-up of MEPs Mobilizing for Diabetes (MMD)—an EU Parliament Interest Group, which launched officially in February and builds on other advocacy pillars established in recent years like the EFPIA Diabetes Platform (2018) and European Diabetes Forum (2020).
But there’s still much to be done. The 100-year insulin anniversary is an amazing milestone that should be built upon to underscore the continued needs of people with diabetes in Europe and beyond. To that end, Lilly recently hosted its first “Care Beyond Borders, Together” summit, bringing together individuals from across all key stakeholder groups to discuss how to ensure more equitable access to care.
This was the first Lilly event to involve the Diabetes Online Community (DOC). The DOC is a community made up of all types of people, including people with diabetes, caregivers and healthcare professionals that provide 24/7 support to each other by engaging and sharing information about diabetes. The lessons we can all learn from connecting with thousands of actors in diabetes active in a single online community will be invaluable. We believe DOC has the potential to turbocharge developments in diabetes care over the coming years.
During the event, Lilly announced the 10-year expansion of a long-standing program in which we partner with Life for a Child, to bring care to children and youth with diabetes in less-resourced countries. The expansion will increase access to quality diabetes care for children and young people with type 1 diabetes from approximately 23,000 to 150,000 in 65 countries.
As ever in healthcare, there is no easy fix. Improving access and quality of care for people with diabetes must involve several stakeholders. With the right care, a person living with diabetes can lead a long and healthy life. But as insulin discovery hits 100, let’s avoid complacency, even within our own borders. Investing time and resources into finding better solutions for the hundreds of millions of people living with diabetes is as important as ever.
European Diabetes Forum. A Call to Action, To All Stakeholders in the European Diabetes Landscape. https://jimdo-storage.global.ssl.fastly.net/file/fa1d79b4-07e7-4083-9588-6074b54986eb/EUDF_CalltoAction.pdf
EFPIA. (2019). Improving outcomes for people with diabetes: The role of health data, access to innovation and rethinking care. https://www.efpia.eu/media/413307/improving-outcomes-for-people-with-diabetes.pdf
The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). DIGITAL DIABETES INDEX: Comparing European Digital Diabetes Readiness. https://digitaldiabetesindex.eiu.com/
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Diabetes must be higher on the political agenda
60 million people in Europe—equivalent to the population of Italy—have diabetes. This presents a significant challenge for European health systems, which spend €150 billion on diabetes.1 And up to 75% of diabetes expenditure is related to preventable complications.2 Moreover, COVID-19 has further highlighted the need for better diabetes care and control as people with diabetes are suffering a far higher mortality rate than the general population. This should be a call to action for all policymakers.