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Research highlights from our Professional Conference 2024

A crowd at a packed-out lecture theatre

Our Professional Conference wrapped up last week after three days, 101 hours of diabetes science and learning, and 2,500 researchers and healthcare professionals coming together to forge a better future for everyone affected by diabetes. Here are our top 10 science takeaways. 

1. What’s next for insulins and blood sugar monitoring?

Dr Alice Cheng from the University of Toronto gave us glimpse of what’s in the pipeline for the bread and butter of diabetes management: insulin and blood sugar monitoring.

We heard once-weekly, super long-lasting insulins are within touching distance as a new treatment for type 2 diabetes. Findings from clinical trials involving hundreds of people with type 2 diabetes show they work just as well as daily injections of the currently available long-acting insulins.

And they can help to remove some of the load of diabetes management. New once-weekly insulins are currently under review in the US, to decide if they should be made available for use outside of research trials, with decisions expected this year.  

For people with type 1 diabetes, ‘smart’ glucose responsive insulins are the next big hope. Progress here is at an earlier, exploratory stage. One route being explored involves a patch filled with tiny microneedles, loaded with insulin and a special material that can sense blood sugar levels.

The patch is designed to deliver insulin in response to blood sugar highs and hold it back when sugars are lower. They’ve been tested with mini pigs with type 1 diabetes, with promising results. And the researchers are hoping to move into clinical trials with people next.  

In blood sugar monitoring, we’ve made giant leaps forward in the last decade. Scientists are now searching for non-invasive approaches – like measuring sugar levels in sweat or tears. Cool concepts, Dr Cheng told us, but with many challenges to overcome before these could become a reality.

2. The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge makes a splash

The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Senior Research Fellows give us a first look at what's been happening inside their labs over the last year. Sally Morgan, Trustee at the Steve Morgan Foundation, opened with her moving story as the parent of a child with type 1 diabetes, and how the Grand Challenge is aiming to remove the relentless burden of living with type 1 diabetes.

Diving into the science, Dr James Cantley explained how his team is working on cutting-edge drug discovery techniques that could help to grow back insulin-making beta cells directly in the pancreas. Next, Dr Vicky Salem and Rea Tresa spoke about their team’s work to bio-print a protective home for transplanted beta cells, to help them survive and thrive safe from the immune system’s attack.

Lastly, Prof Sarah Richardson described how she and her team have been looking in incredible detail at rare pancreas samples to learn more about the type 1 diabetes timeline, and how we might be able to intercept the immune system attack.

You’ll be able to read more about the Grand Challenge’s presence at our conference in the coming weeks.

3. The power of type 2 diabetes prevention

Professor Jonathan Valabhji shared the latest research on the Healthier You NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme (DPP), with findings driving home the impact it can have in preventing type 2 diabetes.

Researchers tracked over 4 million people diagnosed with prediabetes in England from 2017 to 2023. 26% were referred to the DPP. They saw that people who completed the programme had on average a 42% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to those not referred.

Researchers also found that the more contact people had with the DPP, and the more weight they lost, the less likely they were to develop type 2.

The findings add to evidence showing many cases of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented with the right support.

4. Embracing artificial intelligence

The idea of using artificial intelligence (AI) in diabetes care might sound like science fiction, but Dr Debbie Wake told us it’s already here, powering diabetes technologies, speeding up tasks in research labs, and helping doctors to make more informed care decisions.

Dr Wake described how these uses are just the beginning, with many more waiting in the wings, including:

  • Analysing eye screening images to predict risk of heart problems
  • Helping to count carbohydrates
  • Using chest x-rays to predict who’s at risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Predicting who with type 2 diabetes will respond best to which drugs
  • Helping doctors distinguish between different types of diabetes, to get the diagnosis right.

But are people with diabetes ready to embrace AI in their treatment? From a survey of 8,400 people in Denmark, 46% agreed that the benefits of AI outweigh the risks. With only 2% thinking otherwise. Many people still feel caution is needed, with most only being supportive of AI in healthcare if there was still human input.

5. Psychological impact of technology

Diabetes technologies, like continuous glucose monitors (CGM), have transformed day-to-day life for hundreds of thousands of people with diabetes in the UK. But they can also take a toll on people’s wellbeing.

Dr Vicky McKechnie is a clinical psychologist at Imperial College London. She discussed how technology can feed into a fear of hypers, when people experience a sense of threat and anxiety from high blood sugar levels.

CGMs, and the flood of numbers they provide, can prompt people with this fear to ‘micromanage’ and over monitor their blood sugar levels. Their CGM can feel like an external judge of their diabetes management. And can result in them setting too high standards for themselves, which if they don’t meet can cause stress, and sometimes a greater obsession with blood sugars and risker self-management decisions.

Dr McKechnie explained that while the benefits of CGMs are many, it’s important to recognise the psychological distress that technology can add.

6. Papers to people

Professor Partha Kar kicked off a session spotlighting success stories of research directly improving NHS care and rapidly making a difference to the lives of people with diabetes.

Dr Shivani Misra at Imperial College London is an expert in type 2 diabetes in young adults. Her research has highlighted that early onset type 2 diabetes is rising quickly. It’s more likely to affect people from minority ethnic groups or who live in more deprived areas. It’s more aggressive and brings new challenges to healthcare providers.

Dr Misra has been researching how to improve care for younger people with type 2 diabetes. Her recommendations have informed a new NHS support service, called T2Day: Type 2 Diabetes in the Young.

It will give people with type 2 diabetes aged 18-40 years tailored support and additional health checks, to help minimise their risk of diabetes complications and reduce health inequalities. A fantastic example of the impact of research.

7. Vibrating insoles improve feeling in the feet  

People living with diabetes can develop nerve damage in their feet. It affects feeling and sensation, and can increases the risk of more serious foot problems. Dr Neil Reeves at Manchester Metropolitan University has been testing if vibrating shoe insoles could be a potential solution.

Nineteen people with diabetes and nerve damage tried the vibrating insoles over 10 days, wearing them for at least four hours a day. The researchers tested their foot health before and after. They found people showed an improvement in their nerve function and sensation after using the insoles.

This was a small trial and we don’t know how long the benefits might last for. But with more research to confirm their findings, the team hope vibrating insoles could offer a new approach to restore feeling in the feet.

8. Pre-pregnancy care for women with type 2 diabetes  

In a talk that directed much-needed attention to the health of women with diabetes, we heard from Diabetes UK-funded researcher Dr Rita Forde at Kings College London. She has been looking at the care women with type 2 diabetes receive before pregnancy.

She found that pre-pregnancy support is not included as routine, and there’s no tailored care available. Stigma and stereotypes can also hinder women’s access to the right support. This gap in care can make pregnancies riskier for both mum and baby.

Dr Forde and team are now developing a new intervention, to help make sure women with type 2 get the specialised care they need to have a safe pregnancy and health baby.

9. Putting a stop to stigma

We’ve been carrying out our own research to understand how common diabetes stigma is and how people experience it. Andy Broomhead and Dani Roe, who lead Diabetes UK’s work to tackle stigma, gave an update on what we’ve discovered.

  • Most people with diabetes experience stigma.
  • Many internalise stigma, believing myths and misconceptions about diabetes themselves.
  • Over half miss healthcare appointments due to stigma.
  • Stigma from friends, family and colleagues has a particularly strong negative impact.

Professor Nick Oliver and Dr Rita Forde later spoke about the world-first research projects they’re leading, with funding from Diabetes UK.

Dr Rita Forde is developing communication tools to raise awareness of gestational diabetes-related stigma, and reduce it. And Prof Oliver is exploring the causes of type 1 diabetes stigma, how stigma evolves over time and the impact it can have.

10. Children and young people with diabetes

An important double bill of sessions focused on care for children and young people with diabetes. Dr Mars Skae told us nearly everything we know about treating type 2 diabetes is based on adults, so it’s vital for research and care to focus on the specific needs of children.

New approaches that hold promise to advance care for children living with type 2 include structured education, guidance on the safest ways to lose weight, changing eating patterns to sync up with internal body clocks, and access to newer medications.

Prof May Ng then dug deeper into some of the unfair barriers to care that children with diabetes may face. She told us that children of Black ethnicities or living in deprived areas are less likely to use diabetes tech, making it harder to manage their condition. With our funding, she’s now investigating how we can break down these barriers.

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