ABU DHABI // Researchers are "on the right track" in their search for a cure for diabetes, the 1985 Nobel Laureate for medicine told an audience in the capital yesterday.
"The possibility that there would be a cure to diabetes came from observing diabetics who underwent gastric bypass surgery designed to get them to lose weight," Dr Michael Brown said.
Patients with type 2 diabetes who had the operation typically lost more than 61 per cent of their body weight, he said. But in most cases - 84 per cent - their diabetes went into remission even before they had lost weight.
The reason, researchers believe, is that the surgery bypasses the part of the intestine that causes the body to "think" it has received food. This causes it to believe the patient has not eaten at all, which triggers the production of a hormone. The hormone goes to the muscles and tells them to help insulin burn sugar.
According to Dr Brown, this "gut hormone", which stops the production of fat and promotes the burning of sugar, would make a good treatment for diabetes.
Dr Brown was speaking at the Breakthrough in Diabetes conference organised by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and Invest AD.
He is chairman of the scientific advisory board of NGM Biopharmaceuticals, which is looking into ways to recreate the physiological effects of weight-loss surgery on patients with diabetes, but without them having to undergo the surgery.
Dr Alex DePaoli, the vice president of clinical research at the company, said scientists now understood diabetes to the point where remission was possible, if not yet a cure.
"The scope of the problem is particularly problematic in the Middle East, where five of the top 10 nations in the world known to have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes are in the Gulf region," he said.
At the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress (ADMC), which concluded yesterday, Dr Amir Nikousokhan-Tayar, chairman of the International Diabetes Federation in the Middle East and North Africa and managing director of the Iranian Diabetes Society, said that of the 285 million people in the world with diabetes, 26.6 million were in the Middle East. That number is expected to rise to 51.7 million by 2030.
He said more than US$5.6 billion (Dh20.6bn) was spent in the region on treating diabetes.
"The future for our region is a catastrophe, especially considering that the mean health expenditure per patient in the UAE - $1,067 - is very low compared with the huge numbers of diabetics."
Dr DePaoli also stressed that type 2 diabetics in the UAE tended to be younger than elsewhere. "At the age of 50, the population has more than a one of two chance of having type 2 diabetes. This is a truly alarming rate and absolutely demands attention.'
Dr Brown said this younger incidence could mean a financial nightmare in the future.
"The UAE has such a high incidence of diabetes, and you will see a huge increase in your healthcare costs as this cohort of people with diabetes begins to get older and older and reach the ages when diabetes complications set in," he said.
It is "essential to find some way to treat this epidemic", he said, before the likely surge in blindness, kidney disease, amputations, heart attacks and strokes.
Diet and exercise have been lauded as vital treatment for diabetics, but with lifestyle changes hard to commit to, medication is still essential, doctors said.
However, medication works modestly and is not a long-term cure, Dr DePaoli said. There are also side effects. "Something more is needed," he said.
At ADMC, Dr Maha Barakat, medical and research director and consultant endocrinologist at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, said that although diabetes can be prevented in 58 per cent of people who change their lifestyle, slimmer people are not exempt from the disease.
Dr Nikousokhan-Tayar also announced a Middle East and Northern Africa Leadership Forum, due to take place in Dubai in December. It will bring together about 600 experts to discuss diabetes.