Diabetes Time Travel – By Olly Double
It’s October 2014, and I hear the news that a team at Harvard, led by Dr Doug Melton, has managed to make working, insulin-producing islets from stem cells. If you’re somebody whose life is affected by type 1 diabetes, this is the sort of revelation that makes your heart beat of bit faster. The more excitable sections of the media are talking about it as if we’re only a couple of weeks away from a cure. I don’t quite know how to respond to it all, so I decide to take a trip in my TARDIS.
First I go back to the beginning of this century. My younger son Tom has just been diagnosed with diabetes, and one of the doctors is blithely telling us that they’ll definitely have a cure by the time Tom is a teenager. It’s a reassuring thought. Suddenly, type 1 diabetes seems like a temporary thing that we will eventually get through, rather than a permanent pain in the arse.
I get back in the TARDIS and zoom forward a year or so to what feels like 2001 or 2002. As I pop into one of the offices at the University of Kent where I work, a lovely, well-meaning colleague tells me that they’ve found a cure for diabetes. She’s read it in her newspaper, which I imagine is one of those ones who are constantly trumpeting fantastical health ‘breakthroughs’. You know the kind of thing. ‘Red wine cures rabies!’ ‘Drink a tablespoon of olive oil every day and live to 300!’ ‘Natural yoghurt raises the dead!’ Nowadays, I greet such news with careful scepticism, but back in the early years of the century I had yet to learn that habit and as my colleague talks I am filled with extraordinary happiness. My little son will soon be able to put the finger pricks and the insulin injections and the constantly yo-yoing blood glucose behind him.
My TARDIS takes me back to the present, where Tom is now 15 and still waiting for his cure. I read about Dr Melton’s research, and for all my practised scepticism, I can’t help but be excited. They’ve managed to make the islets, they’ve put them into mice, and the islets in the mice have produced insulin. That is a brilliant, extraordinary feat. Of course, they haven’t completed the journey towards finding a full-blooded cure, but surely to goodness this must be a major step along the way? I start to imagine a world where I don’t have a constant low-level worry in the back of my mind about my sons.
Both of them have diabetes now, and they’re old enough to have taken on much of the responsibility for their condition. That’s a hell of a burden, and although the technology is so much better than what we were using when Tom was diagnosed, it’s still extremely difficult trying to mimic the action of a working pancreas. Like everybody else with diabetes, Joe and Tom still have times when their blood sugar goes out of range. Like any parent in my position, I can’t help imagining what might happen to them in the event of an incapacitating hypo, or about the potential long term effects of hyperglycaemia.
And yet I find it almost impossible to imagine life without type 1 diabetes. What would our family life have been like if both of our kids had grown up without this chronic health condition? Alternative realities are hard to contemplate, and I need to get my head around it, so I get back into my TARDIS to see if I can make any sense of my thoughts by studying the actions of one of my fellow Time Lords.
I go right back to April 1975, shortly before my tenth birthday, where I’m watching the classic Doctor Who adventure Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor has been sent back in time to stop the Daleks from ever being created. There’s a scene where he has managed to rig the very lab which will produce them with explosives, and all he has to do to wipe them from history is touch two wires together. His troubled face, framed by a chaos of curly brown hair, is full of anguish as he holds the wires in front of him, unable to decide whether he should go ahead or not. ‘Do I have the right?’ he asks himself. On the one hand, with the Daleks gone, millions of people will be able to live without fear. On the other hand, some good may have come from the existence of the Daleks. The tyrannical pepper pots are so evil that alien races that might otherwise have fought each other instead form alliances to resist them.
This gets me thinking – has any good come from our boys having diabetes? Has dealing with the condition made us stronger in any way? Undoubtedly the answer is yes. The boys have learned how to carry out medical procedures on themselves several times a day, and this has probably help them to develop their intelligence. For example, reading and interpreting their blood glucose levels has made them very confident with numbers. Tom could understand decimal points before he even started school. Both of the boys are pretty good at carb counting, and Joe says this has given him a knack for estimating amounts more generally. Thinking about carbohydrate has also given us all a pretty sophisticated understanding of nutrition and this has probably helped us to eat more healthily. Having to decide what to do when their blood sugars are out of range has given the boys a strong sense of personal responsibility.
From the very beginning, Jacqui has taught herself as much as possible about diabetes, so as to be able to give the boys the best care we can. She’s read medical books on the subject and become active in the online diabetes community. This has led to her being asked to participate in all kinds of medical forums, get involved in various different organisations, and even speak at the World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne. Meeting other people affected by diabetes has been brilliant, and has given us some of our best friends. Finally, having diabetes in our lives really puts other problems into perspective.
I’m thinking about all this as my TARDIS brings me back from 1975 to 2014, but I stop off on the way at late 2000. It’s shortly before Tom’s diagnosis, and I’m at work, talking to a really nice student about his own experiences of living with type 1 diabetes. The fact that I have such a detailed conversation about the condition just before Tom is diagnosed is either a bizarre coincidence or perhaps an indication that I have an idea about the cause behind the symptoms he has already started to develop. The student says he’s had type 1 since he was four years old and he can never remember not having it. He says he’s so used to dealing with it, he can’t imagine not having it. He even says that if they invented a cure, he’s not sure whether he would take it.
Now I’m back in 2014. There isn’t a cure yet, and any cure that may eventually be found is still firmly situated in the future. However, finding out how to make islets out of stem cells makes curing diabetes seem just that little bit closer than it was before. So the big question is, if they announced they’d found a cure tomorrow, would we take it?
Yes we would.
Are you joking, of course we flipping would! If I could touch two wires together to cure diabetes, there’s no way I’d stand there agonising about it, I’d shove ‘em together as fast as my shaking hands could manage.
I should probably finish by admitting that I don’t actually have a TARDIS. If I did, I’d be in there right now heading for the point in the future – whenever it may be – when they’ve cured diabetes, and I’d bring the cure back to 2014 so we could all enjoy not having this baleful condition in our lives right here, right now.