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We invested over £6 million into new diabetes research in 2022

In 2022, your donations allowed us to commit over £6.2 million to get 30 pioneering new diabetes research projects underway. Our funding will help researchers make strides towards better treatments to change the lives of people with diabetes, and bring us another step closer to a cure.

Researchers at a lab in Birmingham

We’re funding new diabetes research on a wider range of topics than ever before, across all types of diabetes and its complications. Here are just a few of the cutting-edge projects we invested in last year, thanks to your donations.

Mapping the pancreas to understand type 1

Our largest research grant in 2022 went to our new RD Lawrence Fellow, Dr Pia Leete at the University of Exeter. She wants to figure out why the immune system turns on insulin-producing beta cells, and how this process may be differ between people.

The age a person develops type 1 can have an impact down the line. Scientists have found that younger children can experience a more aggressive immune attack that wipes out their beta cells quickly. But beta cells in people diagnosed later in childhood or adulthood (13 years or older) tend to stick around for longer and are still producing some insulin at diagnosis. This suggests that might be two separate subtypes of type 1 diabetes.

Dr Leete and her team will use a technique called immunostaining to build maps of immune cells in pancreas samples from people diagnosed with type 1 at different ages. This will help them to reconstruct a timeline of the immune attack and provide a richer picture of what happens in the pancreas as type 1 develops for different people.

This new understanding could help scientists to develop new, tailored immunotherapy treatments that take us closer to stopping or preventing type 1 diabetes.

Testing molecules to protect against type 2

People living with type 2 diabetes can have a higher risk of experiencing cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks and stroke. Professor Stephen Wheatcroft has found that high levels of a particular protein found in blood can protect people from both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. It does this by making cells more sensitive to insulin, as well as lowering blood pressure and stopping fatty deposits from forming in blood vessels.

Only a small chunk of the protein is responsible for these effects, so Prof Wheaton wants to develop new molecules which mimic its behaviour. His team have already found ‘recipes’ for some promising new molecules with computer simulations. With our funding, they'll use the 'recipes' to make the molecules and then test them on different types of cells in the lab. They'll see if they become more sensitive to insulin and if the molecules can protect the cells from cardiovascular problems.

Knowing how these molecules affect and protect cells could help scientists to develop new and improved treatments for people living with type 2 diabetes that don’t just increase insulin sensitivity, but also lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Changing the brain’s ‘thermostat’

The brain has an important job in measuring blood sugar levels and deciding how much sugar the body needs to make to keep blood sugar levels stable between meals. This can go wrong in people with diabetes because their brains choose a higher blood sugar level, like a thermostat set at 25 degrees rather than 20. A protein, called FGF1, can reset the brain so it chooses to aim for a lower blood sugar level. 

In mice with diabetes, Dr Clemence Blouet has already found that boosting levels of FGF1 in an area of the brain, called the hypothalamus, can keep their blood sugar levels stable for months. It seems to have an effect on a specific type of cell, called oligodendrocytes.

With our funding, Dr Blouet and her team will see if FGF1 increases the amount of and speed that oligodendrocytes are being made in mice with diabetes. They’ll then look at how these new oligodendrocytes are able to help control blood sugar levels.

A deeper understanding of how the brain is involved in managing blood sugar levels could help scientists to develop new treatments able to reset the brain's 'thermostat' in people with diabetes. This could help people to take less medication and check their blood sugar levels less often, easing the burden of living with diabetes. 

A smart way to prevent foot ulcers

People living with diabetes can have a higher risk of developing foot problems. High blood sugar levels over a long time can cause nerve damage in the feet. This can mean people don’t realise they’re experiencing too pressure on the soles of their feet, which can damage skin and lead to foot ulcers, infections, and devastating amputations if left unchecked.

Professor Neil Reeves and his team have already found that a ‘smart’ shoe insole system that raises an alarm about dangerous levels of pressure to the feet could help people with diabetes prevent foot ulcers. But at the moment smart insoles are difficult for people with diabetes to get hold of through the NHS.

With our funding, Prof Reeves and his team will invite people with diabetes and at risk of foot ulcers to compare different smart insole tech systems, including the version Prof Reeves has developed. The team will look at which systems help people respond best to high pressure alerts, and which is best at preventing foot ulcers.

This project could help us better understand how innovative technologies can help people with diabetes at risk of foot problems, and help us take steps to remove barriers to accessing tech like this.

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said:

In 2022, we saw extraordinary advances in how diabetes can be treated and detected. But none of the vital research behind the breakthroughs can happen without the donations from our supporters.

"We’re thrilled to have invested in so many trailblazing new projects in 2022 on such a wide range of topics that could help us to further transform treatments, avert diabetes complications and make strides towards a cure. We’re so grateful to our generous supporters who make all of this possible.” 

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