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A lifesaver with a catch: Powerful new cancer drugs can trigger diabetes — and no one is certain why

The first two rounds of treatment went off without a hitch. But last November, after receiving a third dose of potent immunotherapy for his skin cancer, Rich Lenihan started to feel tired and weak.

He was urinating constantly, and no amount of water could abate his thirst. A blood test revealed glucose levels that were through the roof.

Lenihan, at age 62, had developed a disease akin to type 1 diabetes — formerly called “juvenile” diabetes — a rare complication of drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors that rev up the body’s immune assault on tumor tissue.

[…]On Wednesday, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, JDRF (formerly called the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and the Helmsley Charitable Trust announced they are joining forces to launch a $10 million, three-year research initiative designed to identify the root causes of drug-induced diabetes among cancer patients.

Eventually, researchers involved in the project hope to discover new therapeutic strategies for preventing diabetic complications without sacrificing any of the cancer-destroying potential of livesaving immunotherapy drugs.

“But the first step,” said Dr. Zoe Quandt, an endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, “is understanding the immune responses of patients so we can consider which drugs would be good ones to try.”

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