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We invested over £20 million into ground-breaking diabetes research in 2023

Dr Vicky Salem

At any one time we have over 100 diabetes research projects on the go. Here, we take a look at some of the incredible research that we funded in 2023. 

Every year, we work hard to make sure your generous donations make the biggest possible difference to the lives of people with diabetes, by investing in the highest quality science.

But 2023 was a bumper year, with 36 cutting-edge projects getting underway totalling over £6.5 million. And that’s not even counting the additional £12.3 million invested on behalf of the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge partnership, with nine innovative projects in total now underway and breaking new ground.  

We’re also delighted that others are joining us on our journey. We leveraged over £5.1 million into diabetes research by partnering with other charities and research funders. Let’s take a closer look at some of the new research that’s just kicking off, thanks to your support. 

Navigating menopause and perimenopause with diabetes

We know that for too long that menopause is an important topic which has been neglected in research. So this year we took action.  

With our funding, Professor Vivien Coates will study the experiences of women with diabetes who are going through menopause to understand its impact on blood sugars and diabetes management, and where support is missing.

She’ll do this by investigating factors that impact blood sugar levels and diabetes self-management during menopause. The research team will interview small groups of women with lived experience of diabetes and menopause to hear their story. They’ll then design an online survey, which women across the UK will be invited to take part in. 

This project will shine a light on a topic that’s rarely talked about and under-researched, giving us the most detailed understanding to date of the experiences of women with diabetes during the menopause.  

These insights will be used to shape the future of care for women managing their diabetes during the menopause, filling an urgent gap. In the future, this means women will be able to get the tailored support they need to deal with the additional challenges they face, helping them to live healthier and happier lives. 

Read more about Professor Coates’ project

Shedding diabetes stigma

A shocking 80% of people have come across negative attitudes because of their diabetes. But to find ways to address it, we need a better understanding of how diabetes-related stigma develops and how it affects people. So this year, we invested almost £500,000 in two important new projects. 

Professor Nick Oliver and his team at Imperial College London will survey a large and diverse group of people living with type 1 diabetes, to take a deep dive into their personal experiences of stigma.

Their findings will shed new light on what drives type 1 diabetes stigma, how it may change over time, and how it impacts people who experience it. By building the first picture of stigma in people living with type 1 diabetes in the UK, this research can help researchers to develop novel ways to tackle it and reduce its negative effects. 

Read more about Professor Oliver’s project.

Meanwhile, Dr Rita Forde and her team at King’s College London will tackle stigma linked to gestational diabetes, which can develop during pregnancy. Pregnancy is a time when people can face even greater judgement and scrutiny over their diet, physical activity levels or other health related behaviours. And this could mean people with gestational diabetes may face even more stigma. 

Dr Forde and her team will work with women who have experience of gestational diabetes and healthcare professionals, to develop communication tools that aim to raise awareness of and combat gestational diabetes related stigma. 

Read more about Dr Forde’s project.

Keeping track of people at risk of type 1 

On World Diabetes Day last year, we told you that recruitment for a world-first research study to identify adults in the general population at high risk of type 1 diabetes is open.

The Type 1 Diabetes Risk in Adults (T1DRA) study is led by Professor Kathleen Gillespie at the University of Bristol.

T1DRA joins ELSA, a similar study for children, meaning the UK is now the first country in the world to offer type 1 diabetes screening for both children and adults in the general population, in a research setting.  

In both studies, volunteers are asked to do an at-home finger prick blood test. The research teams then examine the blood samples for islet autoantibodies. These are proteins used by the immune system to earmark insulin-producing cells for destruction, and they signal that someone is likely to develop type 1 diabetes in the future.  

Most people (around 97%) will test negative for autoantibodies so will have a low risk of developing type 1 diabetes. But what about those who test positive, and are at high risk? 

Dr Rachel Besser and her team at the University of Oxford will use our funding to make a registry, or list, of everyone in the UK with autoantibodies. The aims of the registry are: 

  • To keep in contact with people with autoantibodies, so it's easier for healthcare teams to keep an eye on them and catch the onset of type 1 diabetes as early as possible 
  • To tell them about opportunities to get involved in new research, testing treatments called immunotherapies that could prevent or delay type 1 diabetes 
  • To understand what it’s like knowing you’re at high risk of type 1, and develop resources to support people better 
  • To collect data on how type 1 diabetes develops, and understand why once diagnosed different people need different amounts of insulin at different times. 

Dr Besser’s registry could help us to understand the care and support people at high risk of type 1 need, and give them a ‘softer landing’ into life with the condition. It could also help researchers recruit to clinical trials, allowing them to test treatments faster.

In turn this could speed up the development of new immunotherapies for type 1 diabetes, giving us new ways to slow down its progression, or even prevent it entirely. 

Read more about Dr Besser’s project.

Ironing out the details of diabetes and dementia 

People living with type 2 diabetes can be at a higher risk of developing dementia. At the moment we don’t fully understand why, but Dr Fiona McLean at the University of Dundee thinks that iron levels in the brain could play a part. 

In blood vessels in our brain, a group of cells forms a barrier between blood and nerve cells, known as the blood-brain barrier. These cells act like bouncers at a party, deciding what's let into the brain and what gets kicked out.

Dr McLean has found that high blood sugar levels might be causing blood-brain barrier cells to go wrong, which could lead to a build-up of iron in the brain. 

Too much iron can be toxic for brain cells, and it’s linked to another toxic substance called amyloid. Amyloid builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, but little is currently known about exactly why this is. 

By investigating this further, Dr McLean hopes to shine new light on the biology of Alzheimer’s and its links with type 2 diabetes. Her research could lead to vital new treatments that reduce people’s risk of this devastating condition. 

Read more about Dr McLean’s project.

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

"As we reflect on 2023, we’re incredibly proud of the progress, persistent dedication and collaboration from the diabetes research community. The journey may have just begun for these innovative new projects, but thanks to the generosity of our amazing supporters, we’re confident the discoveries they drive will help us step closer to transformative breakthroughs that change the lives of people with diabetes in the future."

 Find out more about all the brilliant research we’re funding. 

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