By Adam Pittard

Published August 2018

Over the course of more than two decades, Jacob Sten Petersen has researched multiple chronic diseases, contributing to the approval of five licensed medicines in the process. But it was the unmet need of people living with type 1 diabetes, the less common form of the disease, that most struck a chord with the biochemist and Doctor of Medical Sciences who today oversees Novo Nordisk’s diabetes research.

“The simple fact that people living with type 1 diabetes can never take a break from their disease has always particularly motivated me,” explains Jacob. “That’s not to say that it is easy to live with other chronic diseases, but for these people, and particularly for children, their dependence on insulin therapy and the constant management of the disease is a significant burden that I’ve always been passionate about reducing.”

Little did Jacob know it, but fate would see him personally experience the burden that had for so long been his primary source of motivation. In 2016, more than 20 years after he began researching a cure for type 1 diabetes, his three-year-old daughter Vita was diagnosed with the disease.

“Vita’s symptoms approached so quietly and unexpectedly that despite my medical training and line of work, it didn’t initially occur to me that she could have diabetes,” recalls Jacob. “But the moment I first tested her blood glucose will stay with me forever. I knew there and then that Vita’s life had in an instant become significantly more challenging. It was truly life changing.”

Even for Jacob, a leading researcher, published author and frequent contributor to the world’s leading diabetes conferences, the learning curve that accompanied the diagnosis of a child with type 1 diabetes was steep.

“I felt that I knew a great deal about life with diabetes,” explains Jacob. “But in reality, I didn’t truly understand what it is like to live with a chronic disease until Vita was diagnosed. We were faced with 100 decisions a day to help manage her blood glucose and to ensure her wellbeing. It really was an eye-opener for me.”

Jacob Sten Petersen

Corporate Vice President Diabetes Research, Novo Nordisk A/S

Vita’s diagnosis carried a heavy toll for Jacob and his family as they came to terms with it emotionally and recalibrated their daily lives to accommodate the management of her disease. But as the dust settled and the family adjusted to their new reality, Jacob’s outlook evolved from one of sadness to one of positivity.

“I came to realise that helping Vita to live with diabetes was a daily learning experience that was teaching me about the real needs of people living with the disease,” reflects Jacob. “My work had always been important, but it took on a whole new meaning. Vita’s diagnosis put things in perspective and I became thankful for my skills and the fact that when I go to work, I’m able to strive towards a better future for my daughter and for people just like her.” 

The future that Jacob has in mind includes a cure for type 1 diabetes – something that he and his colleagues have been pursuing using stem cell therapy since 1998. Two decades of research and a partnership with Cornell University have led the team to a stage where they have demonstrated ‘proof of concept’ – curing diabetic rodents using encapsulated insulin-producing stem cells.

“I am delighted that our efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit,” says Jacob. “There is still much work to be done, but we hope that we will be able to initiate the first clinical trial in humans within a few years.”

As with the development of any novel treatment, pitfalls line the path to success and there are no guarantees of a positive outcome. But Jacob is hopeful and is able to begin to imagine a life for Vita in which she is free from the daily management of her diabetes.

“Vita is five years old today,” he says. “If we can deliver on our research within 15 years, she could be cured of type 1 diabetes by the time she is 20. On a personal level, I could not be more motivated in the pursuit of our goal.”