For the past eight years, several Tampa doctors have enforced a strict daily regimen of multiple insulin shots and blood tests among their diabetes patients.
The only problem with their aggressive programs was that no scientific study had convincingly shown they worked. That was until the National Institutes of Health released the results of a $150-million study Sunday.
Insulin-dependent diabetics who keep their blood sugar level as close to normal as possible through periodic blood tests and insulin shots reduce the chances of long-term damage to eyes, kidneys and nerves, according to the study released in Las Vegas at the American Diabetes Association's annual scientific session.
Dr. Brendan O'Malley of the Diabetes Treatment Center at University Community Hospital said the study is the biggest breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes since doctors discovered how to use insulin.
"It's a real eye opener," O'Malley said. "We've had insulin since the 1920s, but people are still dying from these complications."
The 10-year study of 1,441 insulin-dependent patients under intense treatment found reductions in eye disease by 76 percent, kidney disease by up to 56 percent and nerve damage by 60 percent.
O'Malley said a third of insulin-dependent diabetics experience kidney failure and 15 percent suffer severe eye damage.
Although the study confirmed much of what Tampa doctors already knew, it places much of the burden of treatment on patients to work with teams of specialists to keep their blood sugar levels as low as possible.
"Now I think we're going to be pushing harder," Dr. John Malone said. "This is really going to be whether or not the patients can pull it off."
Malone and Dr. Donald McMillan made 49 of their patients at the University of South Florida Diabetes Center part of the study. USF was among 29 hospitals that participated.
The study applies to roughly 10 percent of the diabetics who are insulin-dependent.
This form of the disease is know as type I or juvenile diabetes because it occurs in people most often below the age of 30.
Dr. Linda Karl, who works with O'Malley at the University Community Hospital's Diabetes Treatment Center, said that all diabetics can learn from the findings.
Tampa residents who want more information on the study can call the Diabetes Treatment Center at University Community Hospital at (813) 972-7262 or the University of South Florida Diabetes Center at (813) 974-4360.