Type 1 Diabetes Research – Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

A large body of research on Type 2 diabetes has helped to develop guidance, informing how patients are diagnosed, treated, and manage their lifestyle. In contrast, Type 1 diabetes, often mistakenly associated only with childhood, has received less attention.
In this Q&A, adapted from the April 17 episode of Public Health On Call, Stephanie Desmon speaks to Johns Hopkins epidemiologists Elizabeth Selvin, PhD ’04, MPH, and Michael Fang, PhD, professor and assistant professor, respectively, in the Department of Epidemiology, about recent findings that challenge common beliefs about type 1 diabetes. Their conversation touches on the misconception that it’s solely a childhood condition, the rise of adult-onset cases linked to obesity, and the necessity for tailored approaches to diagnosis and care. They also discuss insulin prices and why further research is needed on medications like Ozempic in treating Type 1 diabetes.

I want to hear about some of your research that challenges what we have long understood about Type 1 diabetes, which is no longer called childhood diabetes. 
MF: Type 1 diabetes was called juvenile diabetes for the longest time, and it was thought to be a disease that had a childhood onset. When diabetes occurred in adulthood it would be type 2 diabetes. But it turns out that approximately half of the cases of Type 1 diabetes may occur during adulthood right past the age of 20 or past the age of 30.
The limitations of these initial studies are that they’ve been in small clinics or one health system. So, it’s unclear whether it’s just that particular clinic or whether it applies to the general population more broadly. 
We were fortunate because the CDC has collected new data that explores Type 1 diabetes in the U.S. Some of the questions they included in their national data were, “Do you have diabetes? If you do, do you have Type 1 or Type 2? And, at what age were you diagnosed?”
With these pieces of information, we were able to characterize how the age of diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes differs in the entire U.S. population.
Are Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes different diseases?
ES: They are very different diseases and have a very different burden. My whole career I have been a Type 2 diabetes epidemiologist, and I’ve been very excited to expand work with Type 1 diabetes.
There are about 1.5 million adults with Type 1 diabetes in the U.S., compared to 21 million adults with Type 2 diabetes. In terms of the total cases of diabetes, only 5 to 10 percent have Type 1 diabetes. Even in our largest epidemiologic cohorts, only a small percentage of people have Type 1 diabetes. So, we just don’t have the same national data, the same epidemiologic evidence for Type 1 diabetes that we have for Type 2. The focus of our research has been trying to understand and characterize the general epidemiology and the population burden of Type 1 diabetes.
What is it about Type 1 that makes it so hard to diagnose?
MF: The presentation of symptoms varies by age of diagnosis. When it occurs in children, it tends to have a very acute presentation and the diagnosis is easier to make. When it happens in adulthood, the symptoms are often milder and it’s often misconstrued as Type 2 diabetes. 
Some studies have suggested that when Type 1 diabetes occurs in adulthood, about 40% of those cases are misdiagnosed initially as Type 2 cases. Understanding how often people get diagnosed later in life is important to correctly diagnose and treat patients. 
Can you talk about the different treatments?
MF: Patients with Type 1 diabetes are going to require insulin. Type 2 diabetes patients can require insulin, but that often occurs later in the disease, as oral medications become less and less effective.
ES: Because of the epidemic of overweight and obese in the general population, we’re seeing a lot of people with Type 1 diabetes who are overweight and have obesity. This can contribute to issues around misdiagnosis because people with Type 1 diabetes will have signs and will present similarly to Type 2 diabetes. They’ll have insulin resistance potentially as a result of weight gain metabolic syndrome. Some people call it double diabetes—I don’t like that term—but it’s this idea that if you have Type 1 diabetes, you can also have characteristics of Type 2 diabetes as well.
I understand that Type 1 used to be considered a thin person’s disease, but that’s not the case anymore. 

MF: In a separate paper, we also explored the issue of overweight and obesity in persons with Type 1 diabetes. We found that approximately 62% of adults with Type 1 diabetes were either overweight or obese, which is comparable to the general U.S. population.
But an important disclaimer is that weight management in this population [with Type 1 diabetes] is very different. They can’t just decide to go on a diet, start jogging, or engage in rigorous exercise. It can be a very, very dangerous thing to do.
Everybody’s talking about Ozempic and Mounjaro—the GLP-1 drugs—for diabetes or people who are overweight to lose weight and to solve their diabetes. Where does that fit in with this population?
ES: These medications are used to treat Type 2 diabetes in the setting of obesity. Ozempic and Mounjaro are incretin hormones. They mediate satiation, reduce appetite, slow gastric emptying, and lower energy intake. They’re really powerful drugs that may be helpful in Type 1 diabetes, but they’re not approved for the management of obesity and Type 1 diabetes. At the moment, there aren’t data to help guide their use in people with Type 1 diabetes, but I suspect they’re going to be increasingly used in people with Type 1 diabetes.
MF:  The other piece of managing weight—and it’s thought to be foundational for Type 1 or Type 2—is dieting and exercising. However, there isn’t good guidance on how to do this in persons with Type 1 diabetes, whereas there are large and rigorous trials in Type 2 patients. We’re really just starting to figure out how to safely and effectively manage weight with lifestyle changes for Type 1 diabetics, and I think that’s an important area of research that should continue moving forward.
ES: Weight management in Type 1 diabetes is complicated by insulin use and the risk of hypoglycemia, or your glucose going too low, which can be an acute complication of exercise. In people with Type 2 diabetes, we have a strong evidence base for what works. We know modest weight loss can help prevent the progression and development of Type 2 diabetes, as well as weight gain. In Type 1, we just don’t have that evidence base.
Is there a concern about misdiagnosis and mistreatment? Is it possible to think a patient has Type 2 but they actually have Type 1? 
MF: I think so. Insulin is the overriding concern. In the obesity paper, we looked at the percentage of people who said their doctors recommended engaging in more exercise and dieting. We found that people with Type 1 diabetes were less likely to receive the same guidance from their doctor. I think providers may be hesitant to say, “Look, just go engage in an active lifestyle.”
This is why it’s important to have those studies and have that guidance so that patients and providers can be comfortable in improving lifestyle management.
Where is this research going next?
ES: What’s clear from these studies is that the burden of overweight and obesity is substantial in people with Type 1 diabetes and it’s not adequately managed. Going forward, I think we’re going to need clinical trials, clear clinical guidelines, and patient education that addresses how best to tackle obesity in the setting of Type 1 diabetes.
It must be confusing for people with Type 1 diabetes who are hearing about people losing all this weight on these drugs, but they go to their doctor who says, “Yeah, but that’s not for you.”
ES: I hope it’s being handled more sensitively. These drugs are being used by all sorts of people for whom they are not indicated, and I’m sure that people with Type 1 diabetes are accessing these drugs. I think the question is, are there real safety issues? We need thoughtful discussion about this and some real evidence to make sure that we’re doing more good than harm.
MF: Dr. Selvin’s group has published a paper, estimating that about 15% of people with Type 1 diabetes are on a GLP-1. But we don’t have great data on what potentially can happen to individuals.
The other big part of diabetes that we hear a lot about is insulin and its price. Can you talk about your research on this topic?
MF: There was a survey that asked, “Has there been a point during the year when you were not using insulin because you couldn’t afford it?” About 20% of adults under the age of 65 said that at some point during the year, they couldn’t afford their insulin and that they did engage in what sometimes is called “cost-saving rationing” [of insulin].
Medicare is now covering cheaper insulin for those over 65, but there are a lot of people for whom affordability is an issue. Can you talk more about that? 
MF: The fight is not over. Just because there are national and state policies, and now manufacturers have been implementing price caps, doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who need insulin the most are now able to afford it. 
A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at states that adopted or implemented out-of-pocket cost caps for insulin versus those that didn’t and how that affected insulin use over time. They found that people were paying less for insulin, but the use of insulin didn’t change over time. The $35 cap is an improvement, but we need to do more.
ES: There are still a lot of formulations of insulin that are very expensive. $35 a month is not cheap for someone who is on insulin for the rest of their lives.
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