Diabetes is a serious illness, but it’s one that in many cases can be managed through diet, exercise, and medication.  This puts a premium on education, and helping patients help themselves.  In the quest for better ways to educate patients, researchers at Boston University Medical School have journeyed into the virtual world of Second Life, a 3D computer environment where they can use avatars to teach patients proper care.

In the fight against diabetes, Boston University School of Medicine researchers are attacking on many fronts.

Some are in community health centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods of Boston, working with patients to find new ways to manage the disease. Others are exploring the possibilities of education—on the ground, and in cyberspace. Many teams are in laboratories, uncovering the basic biology behind diabetes and identifying paths to a cure.

Although there have been great strides in treatment and prevention in recent years, diabetes—a chronic disease marked  by high levels of sugar in the blood—remains a serious and growing problem. Many experts consider it an epidemic. A recent study found that 171 million people, or 2.8 percent of the world’s population, had the disease. It is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, the number one cause of blindness and kidney failure, a major reason for limb amputations, and an important contributor to cardiovascular disease.

Diabetes can deprive the very young of their childhoods, and burden those who have the disease with a lifetime of worry.

Fighting diabetes with many disciplines

BUSM faculty who study diabetes work across departments and programs. Many collaborate with researchers from other institutions. Their research has been strongly supported by the National Institutes of Health and federal and private organization, which provide some $9 million in annual funding to the school’s Endocrinology, Diabetes, Nutrition & Weight Management section.

Some of the researchers are trained in endocrinology. Others are specialists in nutrition and exercise. Some epidemiology teams track the disease across populations. Diabetes is a focus of two landmark studies of the School of Medicine: the Framingham Heart Study—started in 1948—and the Black Women’s Health Study, which began in 1995.

Abnormal metabolism in fat cells appears to be a key factor in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Hormones produced in fat cells fail to interact properly with the brain, causing appetite disorders. A team of researchers in the Diabetes Research Unit are discovering the mechanics of this process, and the effects of diet and exercise.

Other researchers are exploring how cells in the body react to insulin—where precisely the process can go wrong, and what might be done to correct it.

Several projects at the School of Medicine involve collecting and analyzing data on large groups of people. This research seeks to decode the influences of genetics and environment on recent increases in diabetes, with a particular focus on explaining the prevalence of diabetes among ethnic and racial minorities in the United States.

New ways to manage diabetes

Diabetes is a disease that often can be managed effectively by patients themselves. Researchers are experimenting with new ways to educate patients on the use of medications, diet, and exercise. One especially promising approach makes use of telemedicine, a growing field that uses audio and video to facilitate interactions between patients and providers.

For more information on how to support the BU Diabetes Research, please contact the BUSM Development Office at 617-358-9535 or busmdev@bu.edu.