Just the other day, we had a good April 1 laugh about all the hyped-up diabetes "cure" headlines. But today, we're looking more seriously at how Big Pharma is putting its money where its mouth is, as in fighting diabetes for real by investing in cure research. No joke.
In mid-February, JnJ-owned Janssen Pharmaceuticals announced they were teaming up with JDRF to pursue a new scientific approach that if successful, would prevent and intercept -- and therefore effectively cure -- type 1 diabetes (T1D). This appears to be the first effort of its kind, with Pharma funding research specifically aimed at pinpointing and thwarting the causes of T1D.
Janssen calls this initiative the Disease Interception Accelerator (DIA), and in fact, T1D is just the first condition being targeted with focus on other disease states coming down the road. In their so-called T1D Venture, scientists have already begun work to develop new diagnostic tools, therapies and even combination approaches to intercept T1D before it starts and understand the role of potential triggers for the condition.
At the end March, we joined a handful of other diabetes advocates for a Janssen webinar introducing the DIA. The Janssen team leading the call included JnJ Lifescan Communications Director David Detmers; Dr. Ben Wiegand who heads up the DIA; Dr. Joe Hedrick who spent years as a JDRF scientist and is now Janssen's T1D Venture leader; and Dr. Kevin Wildenhaus who is JnJ's behavioral science lead.
Janssen has been working on the Accelerator concept since mid-2014, to explore which diseases would best fit the criteria, and assemble the best possible science team. There's no word on the exact level of funding or any timetable, as it all depends on what the science dictates, we're told (hmmm...?)
But the exciting part is that Janssen believes this initiative could lead to type 1 screenings and interception efforts becoming a part of routine pediatric screenings at regular doctor visits, just as other health checks are done on children regularly.
"You wouldn't have to sit and wait for the disease to overtake you," Hedrick says.
"We feel we can help drive some decisions in that space, (and provide insight) on what viruses might be playing a part in the development of T1D. We think we can provide some new approaches for intercepting type 1 diabetes. We need an understanding of what's going on, but also the means and measures to see what's happening with specific biomarkers."
In slides presented during the March 26 webinar, Janssen outlined the goal and objectives of their T1D Venture:
Janssen also says it's trying to think about this research in the broadest way possible, so that they aren't limiting themselves in any regard. They're willing to work with doctors, other companies or organizations, scientists throughout the world, and also diabetes patient advocates to figure out what needs to be done -- that includes TrialNet and others considered "major players in T1D research" globally.
It's very encouraging of course to hear that Janssen is willing to work with competitors and even non-traditional players -- like our community of diabetes patient advocates -- to reach this important goal.
"This will require a cultural change, that we can work together and engage at-risk populations in this research at such a ground level," Hedrick says.
For JDRF, this research is right at the heart of its current interests, which we've been following closely -- studies on the early stages of T1D, and the newly-announced precision medicine initiative that will garner more widespread funding and R&D across the board.
We reached out to JDRF Science Officer Dr. Richard Insel to get his perspective on the new Janssen DIA initiative, and he tells us:
“In the last decade we have gained the ability to diagnose type 1 diabetes before the onset of clinical symptoms of the disease. Disease interception may help provide a novel approach to prevent symptomatic disease and insulin dependence for people with type 1 diabetes and create great value by reducing the burden on global health care systems. JDRF has long believed in disease interception and we are eager to partner with Janssen’s DIA to focus on integrating breakthrough science to develop new therapeutics, precise diagnostics and new business models to combat T1D.”
So yes, this seems hopeful. But you can’t get around the obvious truth that after decades, we still don’t know what causes any type of diabetes. Sure, researchers have some ideas. But there’s no clear science showing exact causes or triggers, and nothing definitive can be done at this point to prevent type 1.
Still, this kind of Pharma commitment to cure research is unique, and with an open approach to collaboration, seems very promising.
Conspiracy theorists, take note: at least one Pharma company is working to be a part of the solution beyond just selling drugs and treatments.
Thanks, Janssen, for hopefully setting a new precedent here!