Del Mar-based Diabetes Research Connection keeps fighting for a cure
Del Mar’s Felise Levine will always remember that November is Diabetes Awareness Month.
The Brooklyn-born Levine recalls riding home from a high school football game on the New York City subway in 1964 when she looked up and saw a message about Diabetes Awareness Month. “If you have these symptoms,” the poster read in big block letters. “You may have diabetes.”
Symptoms included unexplained weight loss, extreme thirst, frequent urination, increased appetite and fatigue. The then-15-year-old Levine had not felt well for about six months but she had made excuses for every symptom she had.
“I was losing weight but I was a teenage girl, what was bad about that? I was constantly thirsty but it was summer,” Levine said.
After realizing she could check off every symptom on the list, she was concerned enough to go to her mother and then to her doctor, where she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.
“I’m very grateful for the month of November,” she said.
Diabetes is a lifelong disease that affects people of every age, race, and nationality. Approximately 1.25 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, including 200,000 youth, and an estimated 40,000 people in the U.S. are newly diagnosed each year. Despite this, funding has decreased for research to prevent, cure, and better manage the disease.
Levine, a retired licensed clinical psychologist, has been on the board of the Del Mar-based Diabetes Research Connection for the last four years. A past president of Del Mar Community Connections and the San Diego Psychological Association, she has been living with Type 1 Diabetes for 57 years.
“This disease is 24-7, it doesn’t go away. There is not a minute that it’s not on my mind,” Levine said. “I’ve had an amazing life, I’ve had a good life but it’s been with a lot of hard work to manage this disease. Some days are better than others.”
The Diabetes Research Connection (DRC) was founded in 2012 bringing donors and innovative scientists together for research designed to prevent and cure Type 1 diabetes, minimize its complications and improve the quality of life for those living with the disease. The DRC seeks out the best and briefest early-career scientists in the nation and provides seed funding for their promising research.
“We believe early-career scientists have a lot to offer T1D research and DRC raises funds to support their research aimed at finding viable treatments and a possible cure for T1D,” said Karen Hooper, executive director of DRC.
One such project that DRC is currently helping to fund is research on Combination Insulin and Non-Insulin Therapy for T1D from Schafer Boeder, Ph.D. at UC San Diego.
“The exciting thing about DRC is that there’s no overhead,” Levine said. “If someone donates, 100% of the funding goes directly to that research project.”
In helping people understand what Type 1 diabetes is, Levine likes to use the analogy of a lock and key, in which the body is a lock and insulin is the key.
When you eat, the body digests food and turns some of it into blood glucose or blood sugar. Insulin is the key that unlocks the cells to enable glucose to enter muscle, liver, and fat cells so that carbohydrates can be turned into energy for the cells to use.
“With diabetes, the body attacks itself and we don’t know why, it attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin,” she said.
The lack of insulin is what causes blood glucose levels to rise and damage eyes, kidneys, nerves and the entire blood circulatory system. When you have Type 1 diabetes, you must inject insulin into the body to give it the keys it needs.
“There is no cure and that’s why we’re all working so hard to raise funds for diabetes research,” she said.
When Levine was diagnosed in 1964, the treatment was very primitive. She took her insulin by injections and tested her blood sugars through a urine test, using a test tube: “It’s not like what kids do now,” she said.
The advancements in treatment have been remarkable and Type 1 diabetes technology keeps getting smarter. There are now options for insulin pumps and glucose monitors—kids can use their cell phones to monitor their blood sugar.
“With all this great technology, kids can stay in very good control and avoid complications,” she said.
Despite the global pandemic and decline in donations, the DRC continues to fight to end Type 1 Diabetes. In their first round of grant applications in 2021, they funded more projects than ever before with eight projects across the country focused on cures, pregnancy complications and T1D and studies of genetic markers. Their second round of grant applications has just been completed and, according to Hooper, they received an unprecedented response from scientists. They hope to fund 6-10 new projects in the coming months, the single largest investment in early-career scientists in the organization’s history.
The DRC is looking forward to being together again for in-person fundraising events, their third annual gala Dance for Diabetes was held virtually last year.
Locally, Carruth Winery in Solana Beach has additionally selected DRC as their Corks for a Cause beneficiary. For every bottle sold in November and December, a portion will go toward DRC.
Levine knows that every dollar counts. She will continue working hard to raise awareness and bring hope to those living with Type 1 Diabetes:
“We will make a difference.”
To learn more or donate, visit diabetesresearchconnection.org
9:38 a.m. Nov. 11, 2021: Updated to add more clarity on the lock and key analogy of what Type 1 Diabetes is.
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