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“What diabetes means to us” combines research, art and the lived experience of diabetes

Diabetes UK Cymru is encouraging people to visit a research-based art exhibition, at the Hearth Gallery at University Hospital Llandough in Cardiff, to celebrate 100 hundred years since the discovery of Insulin.

Susan Wong, Professor of Experimental Diabetes and Metabolism at the School of Medicine, Cardiff University with members of its Diabetes Research Group and Artist in Residence, Bridget O’Brien have created a project to showcase the importance of diabetes research. It aims to generate an open discussion about the condition and what it means to those who live with it.

Divided into six sections, the exhibition journeys through the History of Diabetes and Insulin, a community installation What Diabetes Means To Me, two films – basic science and Clinical Research, information About Diabetes and creative responses by Bridget O’Brien, “Through the Looking Glass” and “A Window into the Pancreas”. This is an impressive panel made up of 300 hand-painted microscope slides with tissue, each representing a person who donated their pancreas for study (anonymised samples came from the Exeter Archival Diabetes Biobank)

Artist Bridget O'Brien said: “This work tells a story, as those with earlier dates often died young some close to their diagnosis of type 1. As advances have been made in science, the time between diagnosis and death becomes much longer and this information is reflected in the glass slides. For me as a community artist, it was very rewarding to receive entries from participants in age from three to 84 years old with a range of types of diabetes, as well as from their families and scientists, effectively bridging between them.

Over 100 people have submitted their entries about diabetes. The works are honest, inspirational and some humorous, showing the ups and downs of life with the condition, as well as insights into how clinicians perceive it.

The seeds of this project were sown in 2018, when Professor Susan Wong saw some of Bridget O’Brien’s illustrations for a book project where Bridget demonstrated an interest in exploring the potential connections between science and art, in terms of creative thoughts and processes.

Bringing a human dimension to scientific work

Bridget O’Brien added: “We started in 2019 by doing workshops with researchers and people with diabetes, but when COVID-19 started, we adapted the initiative, by asking for contributions to be sent with the view of sharing them afterwards with the wider community. We wanted to respect the voices of people living with diabetes and also challenge or correct some of the popular misconceptions.”

Prof Wong said: “Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are sometimes misunderstood to be the same, and many people have not even heard of gestational diabetes or ‘monogenic’ diabetes that is caused by a change in a single gene. Our exhibition attempts to address some of the misconceptions, by bringing together laboratory researchers, clinical academics, an artist and over 100 people who have some connection with different types of diabetes. We also chronicle the history of insulin and how life has changed for people who have lived with type 1 diabetes, some for 50 years, as they tell of the changes they have witnessed and experienced”.

Due to COVID-19, the organisers are limiting and managing the number of visitors and to allow for this, the exhibition has been extended until the 22 November.

Professor Susan Wong and Professor Colin Dayan lead the Diabetes Research Group at Cardiff University, and are part of the clinical team working with people who have diabetes at University Hospital of Wales Cardiff and University Hospital Llandough. This research focuses on the causes and development of type 1 diabetes and has encompassed T cell immunology, B cell immunology, regulatory T cells, innate immunity and in recent years the role of the gut microbiome. We are proud to have funded some of this work.

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