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How Diabetes Changed My Life

At the age of 16, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was the worst day of my life.

I was devastated. At the time I was a competitive tennis player in Sweden and had represented my country on several occasions in the European and World championships. I was in the best physical shape of my life, and did not like losing. That made this diagnosis worse, since I could not accept or even understand how I could be punished like this. My lack of acceptance made everything more difficult. My two younger sisters, Anna and Lisa, who were 6 and 14 at the time, were supportive but in shock. I was their big sister who had always been strong, and now I was in the hospital. I would have to inject insulin multiple times daily, change my diet, and face the risks of short and long term complications from a disease we did not know much about.

Upon diagnosis, I made the decision to dedicate my future to discovering a cure for diabetes.

I would go to medical school as soon as I graduated from high school. I got accepted to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden where I graduated with both MD and PhD degrees after only six years. My research was, of course, in diabetes, but I kept a promise to myself not to let diabetes affect my behavior or require others to adjust to my needs. To do so I kept my diagnosis a secret from everyone except my family and doctors. Even my best friends in high school and my med school classmates had no idea that I suffered from the condition. When I stood before more than 100 people in the grand auditorium at the Karolinska Institute to defend my thesis, the only person outside of my family who knew that I was diabetic was my advisor, Professor Kerstin Brismar. This was because she also happened to be my medical doctor.

After almost 20 years with diabetes, in the spring of 2007, I found myself working long hours for a Scandinavian venture capital fund. I had severe anemia, uncontrolled hypertension and with diabetic macular edema in both eyes. I was not yet 35 years of age, but my body was telling me that if I did not change my behavior, I would not make it to 40. I was forced to “come out” as a diabetic to my partners at the Fund, to my friends and to the industry I was working in. I needed health care and I needed a complete reset of my body. I spent the summer not working, something which had not happened since high school (even as a child I would be busy with tennis tournaments during the summer) and started thinking about my future.   The decision to go to medical research and “find a cure for diabetes” which I had made as a 16 year-old newly diagnosed type 1 diabetic, had been modified over the years. I stopped everything to look back at my years in finance and other environments that did not allow me to focus on the long term because each day was consumed by its own report card. A situation like that is not healthy for anyone, but for someone with a chronic disease, and especially someone ashamed of that disease who does not let anyone help, it is disastrous.

I made the firm decision to work in diabetes and to make an impact for others while allowing my body to take center stage and try to fix what was damaged.

At Johnson & Johnson I was given an opportunity to lead what was called the Metabolic Taskforce where I was exposed to all existing products in the category as well as any new products being considered by the pharma, device and consumer divisions.

Unfortunately, the damage to my body had gone too far and I faced the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant. My eyes were healed but I had lost my entire peripheral vision and my night vision, but at least I was not blind. The kidneys were more difficult to fix, but my family came through and I received a kidney transplant from my father in March of 2009. 

He saved my life and gave me the motivation to be healthier and to make an impact.

Nine months later I received a whole organ pancreas transplant and my life took an incredible new turn – no more diabetes. I did not realize how bad I had felt for so long – it had been twenty years of insulin injections, highs and lows and constant monitoring. Even worse was the fatigue and the sense of vulnerability I had when on insulin. Now I feel free and ready to enjoy life and plan for the future, which poses new interesting dilemmas for a person like myself, who has lived day by day! Of course there are risks and issues with my new situation. To avoid rejection of my kidney and pancreas, I must take immune suppressants for the rest of my life. Those drugs increase my risk of developing certain kinds of cancer and limit my ability to fight infections. However, I am strong, happy and, importantly, I am surrounded by people I respect, and I am doing what I love on a daily basis!

In this blog, I will be relating parts of my story in more detail as well as how I see the future and what we are doing to try to impact it for everyone. I am not alone in my story – there are so many like me who are struggling with chronic disease. When I founded Lyfebulb together with Riccardo Braglia, Helsinn Group Vice Chairman and CEO and Steve Squinto, PhD, co-founder of Alexion and Venture Partner at Orbimed in 2014, it was with the broad goal to address the gaps I had experienced during my personal journey with diabetes and as a business woman and medical scientist.

My goal for Lyfebulb is to create a global organization that is patient-centric and functions as the voice for a larger population of patients, who have until this point been vulnerable and receptive rather than strong and proactive. We feel that it is patients’ responsibility and opportunity to be innovators, teachers and influencers.

Above all, I want to showcase individuals, who like myself, are not accepting of the role of a passive patient, but willing to take on the challenge of changing the future for themselves and others living with chronic disease.

Food For Thought #1: The Frankensteinification of Grains (Part 1)

Origins of the Food Pyramid

The concept of the Food Pyramid was introduced by Sweden in 1974. Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare created this diagram of “basic foods” that were both cheap and nutrient rich, as well as supplements that would provide added nutrients not found in specific food groups. America’s United States Department of Agriculture adopted this concept, and published the first food pyramid in 1992. Now, the purpose of the American food pyramid model is to indicate the quantity and quality that should be consumed for each of the 6 food groups. Every five years the food pyramid is updated to the current findings of nutritional research. Although this does create some inconsistency of what one should actually consume, the food groups have remained fundamentally the same, and the quantities have not varied all that significantly.

The first food Pyramid, created by Sweden in 1974. The concept would soon be adopted by America in 1992.
The first food Pyramid, created by Sweden in 1974. The concept would soon be adopted by America in 1992.

A Faulty Foundation 

However, one of the dilemmas that may reside in the food pyramid is not in its continual modification, but in its fundamental constituents’. At the base of the food pyramid is a food group known as grains, which consist of any food composed of wheat, rye, cornmeal, barley, oat or any other grain product. The grain food group proudly boasts the most servings one should consume, ranging from 6-8 servings per day. However, research dating all the way back to pre-agricultural times has shown that large consumptions of certain grains, primarily wheat based products result in a multitude of health issues. The manipulation and consumption of grain to fit the standards of modern urban agriculture has been linked to tooth decay and malformations, over 200 autoimmune responses in the body, addictive and withdrawal responses that mimic opiates, and an array of allergic reactions.

When Man First Meets Grain

Lets begin in the pre-agricultural days of man. It is thought that the cultivation of grain is heavily responsible for the continual survival of mankind. Grains ability and willingness to mate rather rapidly with other forms of grain made in a formidable foe in the face of famine, it allowed man to cultivate harsh environments and enjoy a life of comfort granted by a cornucopia of food. However, its abundant nature did not come without its own shortcomings. Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and author of the book “Wheat Belly” examines the relationship between the introduction of Grain and the subsequent health issues that stemmed from it. Dr. Davis notes that, “tooth decay was uncommon in the Pre-Neolithic (before agriculture) period”. Even without the accessibility to modern day fluoride, toothpaste, dental floss, and dentists these earlier civilizations did not exhibit tooth related malformations and diseases; that is until the integration of grain into their diet. Otzi, a well-preserved Pre-Neolithic corpse of an adult male demonstrates some of the effects the integration of wild grains into Neolithic civilizations had on tooth decay and malformation.

The Introduction of Grain in the Neolithic Period, marks the introduction of tooth related ailments, as exhibited in the mouth of Otzi-our well-mummified ancestor from the Neolithic Period.
The Introduction of Grain in the Neolithic Period, marks the introduction of tooth related ailments, as exhibited in the mouth of Otzi-our well-mummified ancestor from the Neolithic Period.

In addition to its detrimental affect on tooth health, the introduction of grain in the Neolithic era led to an abundance of food. This abundance led to a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary lifestyle. It is not at all surprising then that the Neolithic era marks the prevalence of many autoimmune diseases and health complications that still accompany modern urbanized agriculture. Examples of these health complications included, porotic hyperostosis (bone overgrowth), inflammatory diseases, arthritic lesions (Arthritis), musco-skeletal stress markers (increased short statures) and degenerative joint diseases (i.e. osteoarthritis).

Making a Problem Worse-The Manipulation of Grain

The integration of wild grains into Neolithic period led to an array of health issues, however, the continue manipulation of grain has led to new strains drastically different than its ancestors. Grains are revered as one of the few modern day foods that are not genetically mortified (meaning it is not manipulated by gene splicing). Still, what the grain industries do not highlight are the other many invasive practices used on grain that are vastly more dangerous to our health than if they were simply genetically modified. Procedures such as repeated hybridization and mutagenesis have led to biochemically, and genetically different grains than the natural wild grains of our ancestors. Resulting in an even greater array of autoimmune responses than in the beginning of the Neolithic period.

Hybridization of Wheat

The process of repeated hybridization (crossing of different strains of an organism to exhibit new characteristics in the offspring generation) results in the creation of new proteins in the successive generations of wheat. These new proteins are intended to display favorable characteristics such as higher yield and resistance to disease. To understand the implications of repeated hybridization imagine if the same process were conducted on mammalian species. This would result in animals that display a different phenotype and genotype than the parent animal. Overtime, the offspring would become distinctly different than its original source, creating some kind of mutant, freak like creature unrecognizable to our eyes. This same concept applies to the hybridization of wheat. Repeatedly inducing new proteins in wheat, results in our stomach’s inability to recognize these new strands of wheat. As with any foreign invader introduced to our body, the new strands trigger autoimmune responses. A research study conducted by Plant Research International provides evidence supporting these autoimmune responses triggered by these new hybridized strands of wheat. These varied strains of wheat contain varied strains of the Gluten protein, and this study links “Gluten proteins from wheat [that] induce celiac disease (CD) in genetically susceptible individuals. Specific gluten peptides [are also] presented by antigen cells to gluten-sensitive T-cell lymphocytes leading to CD”. The hybridization of wheat is linked to the development of celiac disease, as well as being major contributor to the increase of Cardiovascular Disease in America.

Part 2 Coming Soon!

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