Doing Battle with Diabetes

UF works to unlock causes and cures so kids like Matt Danner won’t be sidelined by their disease.

By Sarah L. Stewart (BSJ ’05)

When Matt Danner learned he had type 1 diabetes two years ago, he wasn’t worried about the possible long-term complications or the fact that his survival depended on injecting insulin for the rest of his life. Like most pre-teen Canadian boys, Matt had more pressing concerns.

“His first question was, ‘Does that mean I can’t play hockey?’” recalls his mother, Laurie Danner.

Matt Danner leads a relatively normal life with diabetes, even playing hockey in Oakville, Ontario. Matt has received guidance from UF’s Diabetes Center of Excellence. Photo by Anne de Haas

With help from UF’s Diabetes Center of Excellence, Matt has answered his own question with a resounding ‘no.’ In 2009, he participated in a UF study led by assistant pediatrics professor Dr. Mike Haller (MD ’00, HS ’01) using stem cells from Matt’s own umbilical cord blood as an experimental therapy to protect his body’s natural insulin-producing cells. His mother credits Haller and the study with not only prolonging Matt’s ability to produce his own insulin, but also with teaching him how to control his blood sugar. Today, the Oakville, Ontario, 13-year-old takes to the ice nearly every day. He dreams of playing in the National Hockey League.

“He’s doing what he was doing before,” his mother says. “He hasn’t lost anything.”

Matt joins an estimated 220 million people worldwide who have diabetes, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, it’s the leading cause of new blindness in adults and kidney failure, the seventh-leading cause of death and the culprit in 60 percent of non-traumatic lower-limb amputations. It also contributes to heart failure and damaged arteries.

At the UF center, experts from endocrinologists to biomedical engineers are working to unravel what causes diabetes and to better prevent, manage and cure it. Led by a nearly 30-year veteran team of doctors, the center has earned a national reputation: Shands at UF ranks No. 12 in the nation for children’s diabetes and endocrinology, according to U.S. News & World Report.

“I really believe we have one of the best type 1 diabetes programs in the world,” says Mark Atkinson (PhD ’88), eminent scholar for diabetes research at UF and co-director of the center. “I don’t know where the cure [will be found], but I think that we have a good chance here.”

An Ounce of Prevention

Though more than 90 percent of U.S. diabetes cases are classified as type 2, which usually results from a combination of genetic predisposition and an inactive lifestyle, type 1 is far more common among children. In this autoimmune disease, the body attacks the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, rendering patients like Matt chronically dependent upon injections.

Type 1 also has a genetic component, yet 85 percent of new cases occur in families with no history of the disease, Atkinson says. This begs the question, “What non-hereditary factors are at play?”

“There’s an explosion of cases in children diagnosed [with type 1] at a very young age,” he says. “And we don’t know why.”

UF is part of an international effort to solve that mystery, tracking about 8,000 newborns with increased genetic risk for type 1 diabetes in four countries to determine what triggers it in some children but not others. The study will follow the subjects for 15 years, collecting blood and stool samples and information about everything from what they eat and drink to what viruses they contract.

“We need to find out what causes it,” says pediatrics professor and Associate Chairman Dr. Desmond Schatz, “and we need to stop it.”

One clue could lie in the intestinal bacteria of children with diabetes, according to research by microbiology professor and chairman Eric Triplett. He has found differences in the bacteria present in stool samples from healthy kids versus those from kids developing diabetes. Though still in its early stages, the eventual goal is to create a bacterial supplement for high-risk kids to prevent the disease.

“The work we do provides hope,” Schatz says.

Living with Diabetes

While UF works to stop type 1 diabetes before it starts, doctors are also searching for new ways to manage it.

Anesthesiology, pediatrics and biomedical engineering professor Dr. Richard Melker* (’63-’65) has spent almost a decade developing a device to measure glucose levels using breath instead of blood. Though the glucose breathalyzer isn’t yet ready for use outside the laboratory, the discoveries that Melker and his colleagues Dr. Donn Dennis (HS ’91) and Dr. Timothy Morey (BS ’89, MD ’92, HS ’96) made could one day replace the need for diabetic patients to take multiple blood samples from their fingertips each day.

Making diabetes easier on children also has been a primary focus of the UF-founded Florida Diabetes Camp.

“We try to challenge them and let them know there’s nothing they can’t do,” says Dr. Janet Silverstein, chief of pediatric endocrinology and the camp’s medical director. “It really helps kids cope with their diabetes a lot better.”

Looking Ahead

Despite the obvious benefits of finding ways for children to better live with diabetes, the greatest hope lies in discovering a way to cure it. The cord blood study Matt Danner participated in could be one step toward a cure. Another study by Haller uses a combination of drugs to interfere with the faulty immune response.

Curing a complicated disease, it seems, will require a varied approach. But Haller and others believe that by combining therapies, a type 1 cure could be on the horizon — perhaps within his career.

“I think that’s a good likelihood,” Haller says. “I am hopeful and optimistic that’s going to happen.”