“Diabetes is a life-long condition, and it’s one that does not discriminate,” said Susan Collins, a third-term Senator from Maine, in her opening remarks at the Senate hearing on diabetes, as part of the JDRF 2011 Children’s Congress. This year’s hearing, “Transforming Lives through Diabetes Research,” is Senator Collins’ sixth hearing in coordination with JDRF, and there was no doubting her knowledge of nor devotion to the subject of type 1 diabetes. “It affects people of every age, race, and nationality. It’s the leading cause of a lot of medical problems; moreover, it’s estimated that diabetes accounts for more than $174 billion of our nation’s annual healthcare costs, and one out of three Medicare dollars. Medical costs for a child with type 1 diabetes are six times higher than the cost for a child without the disease. These statistics are overwhelming, but what really motivated me to devote so much energy and time to this issue was meeting with families whose lives have been forever changed by [type 1] diabetes.”
Senator Collins was active in type 1 diabetes advocacy many years before her participation in Children’s Congress began. In 1997, she founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus, a group of now 40 Senators from both sides of the political aisle dedicated to educating fellow Senators and promoting legislation to support type 1 diabetes research. Senator Collins co-chairs the Senate Diabetes Caucus with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. In its 14 years, the caucus has helped to more than triple federal funding for diabetes research, mainly through the Special Diabetes Program, a funding vehicle first established in 1997 and reauthorized six times since then, providing in total more than $1.9 billion through the National Institutes of Health for type 1 diabetes research. The most recent renewal, in December 2010, for which JDRF was one of the leading advocacy organizations, secured $300 million through 2013.
As a result of Senator Collins’ unflagging support, the diabetes community has seen encouraging breakthroughs in research related to diabetes complications and management. For example, scientists have identified a gene that puts people with type 1 diabetes at greater risk for diabetic nephropathy, a severe and devastating form of diabetic kidney disease that develops in up to 40 percent of patients with diabetes. Other studies have produced new and far more effective therapies for diabetic eye disease, the most common cause of adult blindness. On the management side, two recent studies have shown that regular use of a continuous glucose monitor (CGM)—a device that provides continuous, real-time readings and data about trends in blood glucose levels—significantly improves control of blood sugar levels, a crucial factor for people with type 1 diabetes on both immediate and long-term levels. And researchers have completed inpatient studies of artificial pancreas technologies, which combine two existing technologies—the insulin pump and the CGM—with sophisticated computer software to automatically read blood sugar levels and provide just the right amount of insulin at just the right time.
In May, along with a majority, bipartisan group of her colleagues, Senator Collins sent a letter to Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, urging her to issue the guidance necessary to take the clinical trials of the artificial pancreas from a hospital setting to an in-home setting. Her efforts proved successful when, during the Children’s Congress Senate hearing, Charles Zimliki, Ph.D., Chair of the FDA’s Artificial Pancreas Critical Path Initiative, testified that the FDA will make the first draft of its guidelines available for public comment by December.
In her closing comments, Senator Collins gave a special thanks to the delegates. “It’s because you’re willing to come here and tell your personal stories that we’ve been successful,” she said. “And I know that with your help, we will one day soon have better treatments…but also, ultimately, the goal of all of us here…a cure.”