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Our scientists took diabetes research to the pub

Dr Chloe Rackham and Dr Craig Beall receiving a pint glass each

We’ve taken some of the cutting-edge science we fund out of the lab and into the pub. As part of the Pint of Science festival, two of our brilliant researchers at the University of Exeter gave pub-goers a run through of their latest Diabetes UK-funded work. 

Pint of Science is the world’s largest festival of public science talks. Their mission is to bring researchers and members of the public together to chat about science and learn from each other in friendly environments, away from daunting lecture theatres.

Back to the basics of beta cell transplants 

After getting a round in at the Bootlegger in Exeter, we settled in to hear from Dr Chloe Rackham about her work to unleash the benefits of an exciting treatment for type 1 diabetes.  

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune system attacking and destroying the insulin-making beta cells in the pancreas. Dr Rackham explained how islet transplants are promising solution to replace some of the beta cells people have lost.  

In islet transplants, pancreas cells from donors are given to people with type 1, allowing them to make some of their own insulin again and keeping blood sugar levels more stable. 

At the moment, these transplants are only available to people with type 1 who have severe hypos and have lost awareness of them, because donor cells are so scarce. The transplants also aren’t perfect. The donated beta cells can become inflamed after transplantation, causing them to die off.

Shape-shifting stem cells 

With our funding, Dr Rackham is working on a solution. She introduced us to an exciting group of cells, called Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs). Stem cells can be coaxed to shape-shift into different cells, or be given power-ups in specific cell jobs, like healing, sensing, or growth. 

She explained that MSCs can respond to inflammation signals sent from beta cells and can boost their healing powers. They can also protect the beta cells from the immune system, by teaming up with immune police cells to block villainous ones. 

Dr Rackham’s research into how MSCs work and how to supercharge their powers could lead to new ways to help transplanted beta cells to survive and thrive.

This would make islet transplants more effective and could mean that more people who live with type 1 diabetes can be treated with a life-changing transplant. 

One day, Dr Rackham explained we might even be able to use them to intervene in the development of type 1 diabetes, which could prevent the condition entirely. 

Half time, half pint 

The halfway point was a perfect opportunity to top up, swot up, and get competitive juices flowing with a quiz. With the help of Kwizzbit, the Bootlegger went up against all the other Pint of Science pubs in the country over a series of synchronised questions.

Our knowledge on all things science, including invertebrates, sci-fi films, and the solar system was put to the test. Sadly we didn’t make it onto the national leaderboard, but the venue winners walked away with a prize.

The brains behind diabetes 

Then Dr Craig Beall took over the reins, and told us that not many people realise how important the brain is in managing blood sugar levels.

The brain takes up around 2% of a person’s body weight, but needs around 20% of the body’s entire supply of glucose (or sugar). This means it’s really important for the brain to have a constant supply of sugar, which is why hypos (when blood sugar levels are too low) can be so dangerous. 

Dr Beall described how the brain measures blood sugars levels. Neurons are nerve cells which send and receive messages from all around the body, like a telephone.

Dr Beall explained that the brain has two types of specialised glucose-sensing neurons – one which sends messages when sugar levels are high, and one which sends messages when sugar levels are low.

The audience was divided in half to pretend to be each type of neuron, and clapped or stamped depending on their behaviour for a series of different sugar levels, shouted out by Dr Beall. 

An energy sensing molecule, called AMPK, also helps by acting like the brain’s fuel gauge. It switches on when our body’s fuel levels are low, like in a hypo, sending messages to the liver to make more sugar.

Metformin on our mind 

Dr Beall went on to describe how metformin, a drug often used to lower blood sugar levels in people living with type 2 diabetes, can turn up levels of AMPK in the brain. This means it holds promise to help prevent hypos.

To understand this potential further, Dr Beall wants to figure out exactly how metformin works in the brain, in a new project we’ve just started funding.  

Lastly, Dr Beall talked us through some exciting recent breakthroughs. He showed that insulin can be made in the brain, even in those who’ve lived with type 1 diabetes for a long time.

Studies suggest it could be possible to harness this new source of insulin, and this could pave new routes to treat diabetes. 

Here’s to the future 

Dr Rackham said:

"The Bootlegger was a brilliant venue to host our Diabetes UK-funded research for the evening. It was a pleasure to share the stage with my colleague Craig, who had the audience stamping their feet with excitement. I’m also grateful to the fantastic Pint of Science audience for their insightful questions, and thoughtful feedback."

Dr Beall said:

"It was lovely to showcase our recent research to Pint of Science attendees and also share some emerging areas of our ongoing research that could well be the hot topics of the next few years."

Alice, who lives with type 1 diabetes, attended the evening and said:

"I’ve lived with type 1 for just over three years now, and was blown away by the hard work these researchers are doing to improve the lives of people like me. I’m glad there’s so much exciting science going on in Exeter. It has given me hope for life-changing treatments on the horizon."

Dr Lucy Chambers, Head of Research Communications at Diabetes UK, said:

"We're delighted to have partnered with Pint of Science for the first time. This event has been a fantastic platform for our researchers to bring their work out of the lab and into the pub, and we hope the people of Exeter went home having quenched their thirst for knowledge about diabetes research."

We raise a glass to Dr Rackham and Dr Beall for their tireless work and fascinating talks, and to Pint of Science for their support. Find out more about Pint of Science, and the research we’re funding

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