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Commentary: Coming together to fight diabetes*

This story has been corrected. Please see below.

Can an intense, five-day scientific conference, the American Diabetes Assn. conference in Chicago, bring hope to a worried mom of a Type 1 diabetic?

Thanks to those who have committed their lives to finding a cure, the short answer is, yes. I just returned from the 73rd Scientific Sessions diabetes conference, which brings the world's foremost academic and private researchers to share their works with upward of 17,000 attendees.

Under one giant roof was the epicenter of the who's who in the diabetes world, the rock stars of science who are devoting their lives to prevent diabetes, find a cure, provide better treatments and care for millions of people who are living with complications. They showcased cutting-edge science to colleagues and fellow health care professionals who are in this fight together.

I don't have a science background, save for a Biology 101 class I took in college 20 some years ago, so this heavy-duty, science-laden conference would be an unlikely event for me to attend. However, I'm equally in this fight to end diabetes for my son, Tristan, 21, who was diagnosed seven years ago with the life-threatening autoimmune disease Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 can strike anyone at any time and leaves its victims insulin-dependent for life.

Types 1 and 2 diabetes are epidemics, and unless you have a loved one or family member with either, chances are you don't know the difference between the two corrosive illnesses that are extremely costly. Type 2 is a metabolic disorder, patients are insulin resistant, and the cause is usually associated with lifestyle. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, meaning cells in the pancreas are attacked and stop producing insulin.

Diabetes-related costs in the U.S. exceed $218 billion. To do my part in raising awareness and funds for a cure, I joined the board of JDRF, an organization that is fighting for Type 1 research, five years ago, and I also became the executive producer of a documentary, "The Human Trial," which is following three research teams on their quest to cure Type 1 diabetes, hopefully culminating in a history-making clinical trial.

The documentary will visually capture why a cure is urgently needed. The film caught the attention of world-renowned graphic design artist, Shepard Fairey (a Type 1 diabetic), who generously donated his talents to create the film poster. Proceeds from signed, limited edition posters will help support the making of the film.

I attended the conference with Lisa Hepner and Jonathan Formica of Vox Pop Films to do research for the film. At the conference it was the first time I felt hopeful for a cure. Dr. Jonathan Lakey from UC Irvine had just received news that JDRF granted $2.27 million to help fund some of his innovative methods of treating and possibly curing Type 1 diabetes.

Lakey, along with Elliot Botvinick, will try to successfully transplant encapsulated, stem cell-created pancreatic islets. If all goes as planned, the encapsulated islets will produce insulin – a hormone key to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body.

"Support from the JDRF will allow our laboratory and our collaborators to better understand the mechanism of islet encapsulation, a novel means to protect the isolated islets from destruction from the body when transplanted," Lakey said. "This is an important grant that will make a difference for those who suffer from diabetes."

And I met Dr. Timothy Kieffer, a diabetes research specialist at University of British Columbia, who has also been supported by JDRF, and is on the same page with Dr. Lakey's team at UCI. He said the magic words that I will never forget: "I see light at the end of the tunnel."

Kiefer said that he see things coming together for a cure for Type 1 diabetes. "The painstaking research by developmental biologists over the decades has laid the groundwork and facilitated creation of recipes to manufacture new islet cells from stem cells," Keifer said. "While there is clearly still more work ahead, and undoubtedly there will be unanticipated challenges along the way, I believe we are in the homestretch, and thus I see the light at the end of tunnel. These are exciting times."

And most touching at the conference were two dads, Robert Oringer of AMG Medical in Montreal, and Tom Karlya, the "Diabetes Dad" of Diabetes Research Institute Foundation in Miami, who coincidentally both have two children with Type 1 and are committing their lives to diabetes care and advocacy.

Oringer, an icon to those in the diabetes fight, has brought lifesaving products to the marketplace through AMG Medical.

"Since my two boys were first diagnosed with diabetes, I remain committed to funding and working on innovations that address improved prevention and treatment of hypoglycemia," he said.

And Karlya quit his successful acting career to devote his life to diabetes advocacy.

"When my daughter was diagnosed at 2, I said to her, 'Daddy is not going to stop until he finds a cure for diabetes."

Tears welled in his eyes as he recalled that day, not knowing then that his second child, a son, would be diagnosed at 13 years old.

The giant take-away from this non-stop diabetes related conference? The research, much of it funded through JDRF, is making a difference. We do live in exciting times right now for a cure for diabetes. And until it happens, I won't give up, just like the dads and the devoted scientists in their labs.

Journalist Greer Wylder, publisher of the Greer'sOC website lives in Costa Mesa.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Tim Kieffer's last name.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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