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A teenager’s promise years ago could lead to new drugs for diabetics

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SALT LAKE CITY — In 1981, when he was 14 years old, Scott Summers made his father a promise.

Jerry Summers, his dad, had received a phone call. Jerry’s mother was dying. She was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to last more than two or three days. Jerry Summers spent a stressful, emotional week with her.

Jerry’s mother, it turned out, survived and lived another 10 years, but Jerry Summers, perhaps because of the stress of the event, started exhibiting the classic symptoms — he was drinking a lot of water and going to the bathroom a lot — of diabetes.

He was familiar with the disease. His mother was a type 2 diabetic. His sister died at age 3 with the disease.

“I went to the doctor and I said ‘I’m diabetic,’” Jerry Summers said.

He remembers his son, who was very concerned, made a promise.

“Dad, he said, I’m gonna find a cure for you,” Jerry Summers remembered.

Scott Summers said he doesn’t remember saying it, but he remembers thinking it. It was more than just a forgotten promise.

A few years later, Scott Summers studied biochemistry at Indiana University and then on a break before graduate school stumbled across a book about insulin.

“I remember reading it and actually starting to take notes,” he said. “And I thought, that’s really cool and that’s something I may like to study.”

At Southern Illinois University, Scott Summers earned a Ph.D. in physiology and has since devoted his career to studying the chemistry behind the disease. Early on, he learned it wasn’t simply that people who eat too much get sick.

“The way my father had diabetes, being a relatively athletic person who got it late in life, gave me appreciation that this disease is really complicated and that it always doesn’t present the same way,” he said.

When he was diagnosed, Jerry Summers was a fit 41-year-old who ran five miles a day. After he was diagnosed, he doubled his daily mileage.

“He’d always been athletic and active but he just completely changed,” Scott Summers said. “He became obsessed with running and he would run 10 miles a day and he started doing road races and he became just this elite athlete in his forties and it was incredible watching him.

“He ran a 10K — 6.2 miles — in 34 minutes. This was in his forties.”

Yet Jerry Summers still became insulin dependent. Today, he takes four or five shots a day and has scars on his face from falls because his blood sugar level dropped and he lost his balance.

In the late 1990s, his son began promoting a theory that could explain why people like Jerry Summers get sick and people who are overweight stay metabolically healthy.

Most people store excess energy, those bumps and bulges, as triglycerides. Scott Summers says some of that energy can “spill out” and turn into a kind of fat called ceramides, which in larger quantities is toxic.

The idea wasn’t accepted, at first.

“For the next 10 years we fought what was definitely an uphill battle,” he said.

In 2007, Scott Summers and his researchers found they could prevent diabetes in mice by genetically engineering low levels of ceramides.

“That changed things a lot,” he said. “I started to get a lot more invitations to speak internationally, go places. We started to have more success with grants.”

The theory gained even more traction recently when Finnish researchers showed ceramide levels could predict death rates better than cholesterol levels and researchers in Texas demonstrated that a hormone that helps the heart works by breaking down ceramides.

Contrary to popular opinion, then, people may not get sick because they’re overweight. Obesity may simply be something that stresses the body and makes matters worse. The real cause, at least of some forms of the disease, may have to do with this “toxic fat.”

Scott Summers and others have formed a company to look for drugs that could control ceramide levels. So far, they’ve produced about 200 potential candidates.

“We’ve made a kind of progress in a very short period of time,” he said.

The potential impact is huge.

“We think that we can develop a drug that behaves a lot like statins, which are the drugs that lower cholesterol in the body," Scott Summers said. "If you give a prediabetic that drug, we may be able to delay or perhaps prevent the progression into the full onset of insulin-dependent diabetes.”

The research, though, is probably progressing too slowly to help his father.

“I asked him about a year ago,” Jerry Summers says, “’ You told me one time you were gonna to find a cure for me.’ I told him, I said, ‘I’m running out of time.’ He said, ‘it’s harder than he thought it was gonna be.’”

“This early idea (that) I’d find a cure … I was a teenager,” Scott Summers said. “Turned out there were a lot of really brilliant people that had been spending a lot of time trying to figure out this disease. So I was pretty naïve about it all.

“I’m still holding out hope that there’s something we could do that would impact his life in a meaningful way. It’s still a long-shot.”

Jerry Summers came from humble beginnings. His mother had a seventh-grade education. His father died when Jerry was 15. He was accepted to graduate school at Harvard but didn’t go because he couldn’t afford it. He still became an academic in the field of education.

When he got sick, Jerry Summers went to the library and learned everything he could about the disease, his son said.

“Commitment to excellence, that was his phrase,” Scott Summer said. “And being a scholar, that was another phrase.”

That’s something Jerry Summers obviously passed on to his son.

“I wanted to be like him,” Scott Summers said.

Scott Summers is now chairman of theDepartment of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology. Its researchers try to figure out how what you eat and how your body processes food affects acute conditions and chronic diseases like cancer, neurogenerative disorder, heart disease and diabetes. The hope is this will lead to a better understanding of these diseases and more sophisticated nutritional advice for patients.


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