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Santa Barbara Diabetes

By David Mendosa

Last Update: November 12, 1997

The new director of the Sansum Medical Research Foundation in Santa Barbara, California, wants to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. Everybody does, but she has a strategy.

‘Empower me to find a cure.’

When the foundation's board appointed Dr. Lois Jovanovic as its director in August 1996, they asked her how she wanted to direct its energies. "I said, 'I would like you to empower me to find a cure,'" she recalls. "And the board essentially gave me the opportunity to see what I could do to create a plan."

Dr. Jovanovic realized that researchers were not talking with each other enough. She is board-certified endocrinologist and researcher herself, named as the American Diabetes Association's Outstanding Clinician in 1995. Working 11 years at the foundation before taking charge, she is the author or editor of 27 books and monographs, both popular and academic.

Helping researchers to talk together would avoid duplication of effort and have a synergistic effect, Dr. Jovanovic knew. So the first step was a symposium in February 1997 to identify those scientists and disciplines to become partners in what's called the Santa Barbara Diabetes Project.

The foundation's Web site currently introduces the foundation to the public and tells something about the February symposium. But by the end of the year Dr. Jovanovic expects to convert the site to a place where the public can ask interactive questions about the Santa Barbara Diabetes Project and where the foundation can report on its progress.

Participants in the symposium agreed on a list of world class scientists who the foundation brought together in Santa Barbara from October 4 to 6. "Twenty scientists from around the world came and shared their experiences and agreed to collaborate on a plan to move closer towards a cure for type 1 diabetes," she says.

The next step is building an Internet link among the scientists and bringing them together from time to time in Santa Barbara. "That will keep the scientists all working on the same page and having a plan that works," Dr. Jovanovic says.

She mentions three possible cures that the scientists might work on. But two of them don't sound like avenues that they will persue.

"A pancreas transplant is a huge operation, where essentially the only people eligible are those who are getting other organs anyway," Dr. Jovanovic says. "It's not a choice for people who are kind of healthy."

A machine that might do the job of the pancreas is another approach. But the group voted in February not to work on one because it would duplicate the work of private industry. For example, MiniMed is reportedly working on an implantable pump with a blood glucose meter that would automatically adjust the insulin dosage.

Islet transplants seem to be the most promising direction for the work that the foundation is organizing. "They have shown a glimmer of hope," Dr. Jovanovic says. "But they haven't cured anybody. Nobody has thrown away their insulin needles very long."

The question that the scientists are asking is "why can't we get our heads together and make this work," she says. Dr. Jovanovic hopes that by bringing together gene therapists, immunologists, and transplant surgeons they will find the answer.

It's been more than half a century since the only major advance in treating type 1 diabetes, Dr. Frederick Banting's discovery of insulin. Since then, "We have just been putting our finger in the dike in making a difference in the lives of people with diabetes," Dr. Jovanovic says. It's about time for a cure, and hopefully the work of the Sansum Research Foundation will make that difference. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.


When I interviewed Dr. Jovanovic I failed to ask her if she had diabetes herself, and she didn't volunteer that information. It was only years later that I learned that as a child she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

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