Do You Know About Monogenic Diabetes?

This post was originally published on October 28, 2019 here on Hugging the Cactus. I decided to share it again today because I think it’s important to raise awareness that there are more than two types of diabetes. As I reread it, I realized that even someone like me, a person who has diabetes, still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding how each type differs from one another. Read on to learn more…

It was the statistic that impelled me to learn more information:

“Approximately 1 in 50 people with diabetes have monogenic diabetes.”

Mono-what?

I was staring at the giant banner bearing this statistic in the exhibition hall of the Friends for Life Falls Church conference. I read it a few times before I finally walked over to the table at which two women were seated. One of the women was an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a human geneticist. The other woman was a typical T1D for several decades of her life before she received a proper diagnosis of monogenic diabetes. Ever since that revelation rocked her world, she’d gone off insulin and took sulfonylureas (a type of drug that stimulates the pancreas to release insulin) to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

Just how many types of diabetes are on the spectrum

Naturally, the whole concept was simultaneously foreign and fascinating to me. I wanted to know more.

As I discovered that evening, monogenic diabetes is best explained by its name. “Mono”, of course, meaning “one”, and “genic” meaning “relating to genes”. Therefore, it’s a type of diabetes that is caused by changes in a single gene.

Here are some “fast facts” that I learned about monogenic diabetes:

  • Most cases of it are misdiagnosed as type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • Proper diagnosis of monogenic diabetes sometimes changes treatment from taking insulin to a pill, or no medications at all
  • There is an emerging clinical spectrum when it comes to genetic testing for diabetes. At the time of this writing, the following situations are when it’s recommended to undergo a genetic test to determine whether an individual has monogenic diabetes:
    • The individual received a diabetes diagnosis within the first 6 months of life
    • The individual’s diabetes does not follow typical characteristics of type 1 or type 2 diabetes – this might mean that the individual is non-obese or has a strong family history of diabetes
    • The individual has a stable fasting blood glucose between 100 and 150 mg/dL
  • From the pamphlet I picked up that featured stories from individuals with monogenic diabetes: “I was 21, taking metformin and aspirin daily and sitting in a type 2 diabetes class with three much older participants. Despite dropping my BMI from 26 to 23 my A1c had risen to 6.4%, not a high number, but certainly one worth watching. I knew of no one else in my family with diabetes. Eventually I did get that dreaded diagnosis, and because it didn’t seem to be type 1, they said it was type 2. Fast forward 2 years and my sister now had ‘GDM,’ (gestational diabetes mellitus) twice, my dad finally admitted to having ‘borderline sugars’ since he was in college, and I got my genetic results back saying I had GCK-MODY (GCK being a gene that can have a variant that triggers monogenic diabetes, MODY being maturity onset diabetes of the young). It changed everything: gone were the pills, gone was the restrictive diet and exercise plan, and when my son was born with high blood sugars, we did nothing, because he was like me, and there is nothing that needed doing.”

Now, if YOU are like ME, all of that might read like some mumbo-jumbo. It took a few weeks of me reflecting on it to decide whether I should even write this post, because I feared that it might cause some people to be paranoid about whether or not they were misdiagnosed with their diabetes (I admit that I was worried about that for myself in the days after learning about monogenic diabetes).

But the big takeaway here that I thought should be captured in a blog post is that it’s important for patients to advocate for themselves when things just don’t add up. There were a few more stories from individuals with monogenic diabetes in the pamphlet I got, and there was a recurring theme in all of them: Doctors kept telling these patients that their diabetes was atypical, but it wasn’t until these patients sought genetic counseling that they began to understand why.

It goes back to what I said at the beginning of this blog post: I find this variant of diabetes to be intriguing. It makes me wonder whether we should continue to define diabetes in such a black-and-white manner (either you have type 1 or type 2). I’m curious if diabetes is more of a spectrum of diseases that present similar symptoms, but require different levels of treatment and management. It’s certainly interesting food for thought, and considering that diabetes continues to be a semi-mystifying condition to many researchers and doctors, it won’t surprise me if future studies eventually uncover more types of diabetes.

Anyways, enough of my musings on genetic testing and speculations on how many types of diabetes are really out there. If you’d like to know more about monogenic diabetes, I was guided to several different resources. Check them out below:

An Insulin Resolution is Necessary

This post was originally published on the T1International website on June 29, 2020, and was written by Cyrine Farhat. She discusses her participation in the WHA virtual forum on Access to Insulin and how she used it as an opportunity to voice her concerns about barriers to insulin access in her country (Lebanon) and around the world.

An Insulin Resolution is Necessary for Lebanon and the World

Diabetes has been on the global agenda in some form ever since World Diabetes Day was created in 1991,which is also the year I was born. It took 15 years to put diabetes on the United Nations agenda after that, to tackle the urgent need to pursue multilateral efforts to promote and improve human health, and provide access to treatment and health-care education. Fast forward another nine years to 2015 when the 2030 agenda was launched and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted. Despite all of that, we are now in 2020, talking about access to insulin when we should have already made it widely available and affordable to all pillars of society.

Sadly, my country and many others are still facing many challenges with insulin access and affordability. Lebanon’s recent financial crisis has caused a dollar shortage that, since September, has restricted the ability of medical supply importers to import vital medical supplies. First it started with masks, gloves, and other protective gear, as well as ventilators and spare parts, and now even essential diabetes supplies are sometimes unavailable. The government has also not reimbursed public and private hospitals for bills, which has made it harder for diabetics to purchase their medication and other diabetes-related medical supplies. For example, Novorapid insulin has been hard to find at pharmacies over the past two weeks.

I had the honour to participate in the WHA virtual forum on Access to Insulin and to address all my concerns as a patient advocate from Lebanon. The aim of the virtual forum was to facilitate a wide discussion between a group of experts and advocates on this issue. The crucial problem is that almost a 100 years after the breakthrough that has saved millions of lives worldwide – the discovery of insulin – many people still cannot access or afford it.

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Patients like Cyrine have the power to change the world.

The fact that I was able to voice my concerns as a person with type 1 diabetes among the panellists that the forum included was very empowering. The panel included Zachariah Muriuki, Project Manager – National Diabetes Prevention and Control Program at Ministry of Health, Kenya; Dr. Kaushik Ramaiya, Consultant Physician and Chief Executive Officer at Shree Hindu Mandal Hospital, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Greg Perry, Assistant Director General, IFMPA; and Emer Cooke Director, Regulation of Medicines and other Health Technologies, World Health Organization.

The forum started by showing a video that displayed testimonials from people living with type 1 diabetes around the world, including the barriers they face in regards to access to insulin, and responses from health care providers. Although I’ve personally lived with diabetes for almost 13 years and have dealt with so many obstacles, it still breaks my heart when I see what people with diabetes worldwide have to go through in order to get insulin and remain alive.

When asked during the forum about the barriers that the Lebanese have been facing with access to insulin and how the government needs to address these concerns, I depicted the current economic situation in Lebanon. The government is absent, especially after the revolution that spiked in October 2019 and left behind a collapsing economy. With hyper-inflation skyrocketing at 240% and the Lebanese Lira collapsing, the government has decided to remove the subsidy from bread and combustibles. The Central Bank has set their own policies restricting depositors’ access to funds in their current dollar accounts and the transfer of money abroad, making it harder to finance imports, including of medical equipment and medicine. These issues can put people living with diabetes in a very dangerous position. With no substitute to imported insulin, and the decline in purchasing power due to inflation, how will Lebanese people be able to afford their medication?

I shared that I believe in the upcoming months we will be left with an insulin crisis once the subsidy is also removed from medication. Patient advocates in Lebanon have been trying to reach out to the government, to no avail. The only thing we can do is to continue to raise our voice until we are heard.

In another question, I was asked what it meant to have the World Health Organization (WHO) and their Member States recognize and prioritize access to insulin, and how people living with diabetes and the global community can take this issue forward. I said that once the international community admits and perceives “insulin as a human right”, the entire scope of advocacy for access to insulin would have solid foundations and would shift from voicing about lack of access to actually forcing governments to comply. As advocates, we must seek accountability from governments regarding progress on WHA targets and address hurdles and bottlenecks in the process. Governments should also set state-level targets, and develop a strong participatory monitoring framework and management information system to measure outcomes of targets under SDGs and WHA.

The panel discussed other matters such as steps that have been carried out in Kenya to enhance access to insulin, how Tanzania has also worked towards improving access and the recommendations it provides to other countries, and how the WHO is committed to improving equitable access to insulin. It was concluded that the WHA resolution on insulin needs to be comprehensive in the requests to governments and to the WHO on actions they should take. Here, civil society, governments, and WHO need to define key requests and alight goals that serve making insulin accessible.

As a Global Advocate for T1International, I will continue to push for change in any way possible. Insulin is life support and no person should have to decide between putting food on the table or affording insulin. I truly believe that we are capable of creating change. The right of access to insulin is mine, yours, and the world’s. If it is our right, then we will not stop until we get it!