Despite improved health education and medicine, one disease that's actually getting more prevalent, not less prevalent, in America is diabetes.
Diabetes is no laughing matter
According to data from the American Diabetes Association in 2012, some 29.1 million Americans have diabetes, most of whom have type 2 diabetes, which is the non-genetic form that develops over one's lifetime. About 1.25 million people have type 1 diabetes. What's worse, 1.4 million new diabetes diagnoses are made annually, and around 86 million Americans age 20 and older are considered to have prediabetes. In other words, if they don't change their eating habits and activity level, they're at a higher risk than the general population of developing diabetes.
Though it might be a disease that doesn't conjure the type of fear felt with a cancer diagnosis, it's nonetheless the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States as of 2015. Co-morbidities caused from diabetes (e.g., high blood pressure, kidney disease, strike, and high cholesterol) can make life for those who have this disease quite unpleasant. It can also be painful on the wallet, with direct medical costs of $176 billion and indirect costs of $69 billion from reduced worker productivity as of 2012.
As such, it's no surprise that drug developers and medical device manufacturers are putting a lot time, effort, and money into researching ways to resolve America's diabetes epidemic. Thankfully, we've seen a number of major advancements over the past couple of years.
The diabetes treatment landscape is rapidly evolving
One of the greater pharmaceutical advancements we've witnessed in dealing with diabetes is the development of SGLT-2 inhibitors, like Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE:JNJ) Invokana, which was the first SGLT-2 inhibitor to hit pharmacy shelves in America back in 2013.
Traditional diabetes medications that target type 2 diabetes work in either the pancreas or liver. SGLT-2 inhibitors do their work in the kidneys by suppressing the absorption of glucose and allowing excess sugar to be excreted in the urine in order to control glycemic balance. What's noteworthy about this new method of controlling blood sugar is that SGLT-2 medicines like Invokana also demonstrated lowered systolic blood pressure and weight-loss in clinical studies. It's a welcomed side effect given the nature of co-morbidities associated with diabetes.
Later this year, Johnson & Johnson should deliver results from its long-term cardiovascular study on Invokana. Fingers are crossed that it, like SGLT-2 competitor Jardiance from Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim, leads to a clinically significant reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular event and death.
In terms of medical devices, one of the most exciting advancements in decades was the approval of Medtronic's (NYSE:MDT) MiniMed 670G for type 1 diabetics a full six months ahead of schedule this past September.
The MiniMed 670G is the world's very first artificial pancreas. In simpler terms, it's the world's first closed loop system designed to measure blood glucose levels every five minutes and administer insulin on an as-needed basis for the patient. A sensor with a protruding needle is slipped under the skin, while a smartphone-sized insulin pump worn on the abdomen ensures proper administration.
The MiniMed 670G should be particularly useful in reducing instances of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, caused by the administration of insulin. Sensors that communicate with the smartphone-sized pump would prevent administration once blood glucose levels hit a certain threshold.
But, there's still much work and research left to be done.
Enter Apple, stage left
Interestingly enough, a company that appears up to the challenge of fighting diabetes is one we may not realize has any affiliation with the healthcare industry: Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). The tech giant is best-known for its leading smartphones, as well as tablets and Mac laptops. But CEO Tim Cook has made it clear that he also foresees Apple making waves in healthcare.
Last week, CNBC reported that Tim Cook was spotted with a glucose-measuring device that worked with the Apple Watch. This corroborates a report from CNBC in April that Apple had a team in Palo Alto, Calif., already working on a way to measure blood glucose levels continuously, but in a non-invasive way. Considering how unpleasant it can be for diabetics to frequently draw blood to assess their blood sugar, a non-invasive method of measuring blood glucose has always been the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, it's also extremely difficult to attain, as evidenced by the fact that there are no non-invasive blood-glucose monitors on the market at present.
However, Apple's foray into healthcare doesn't appear to be a one-off event. Aside from Cook's admission that he's been wearing a glucose-measuring device for months and monitoring how food and exercise impacts his sugar levels, Cook also envisions Apple being a regular contributor to the healthcare space.
Let's not forget that in June 2014, Apple introduced its Health app for tracking various health and fitness data. Aside from the app allowing consumers to keep a close eye on their health habits, an alternative idea behind the app is that it may one day allow for a seamless link and/or continuous monitoring between you and your doctor. The introduction of the Apple Watch, and Cook's use of what appears to be a glucose-tracking prototype, is further evidence of this possible future link (and of the Internet of Things in action).
Before you investors get too excited, understand that healthcare is a nascent sales generator for Apple at this point in time. It's still, first and foremost, a technology and innovation company that's reliant on consumers' desires for the latest in content-based gadgetry. But Apple certainly has the financial capacity and wherewithal to pursue healthcare endeavors that incorporate its devices.
Exciting things are happening in the diabetes treatment space, and soon enough Apple could be part of that excitement.
Sean Williams has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Medtronic. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.