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Helping beta cells to stress less in men and women

Project summary

Insulin-making beta cells respond differently to stress in women and men. Dr Aileen King wants to understand why this is, and if treatments tailored to men and women could treat both type 1 and type 2 diabetes more effectively. 

Background to research

As type 1 and type 2 diabetes develops and blood sugar levels go up, beta cells get more and more stressed out as they try to keep up with demand and make enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels safe. Eventually they get so stressed that they stop working properly, and blood sugar levels can get dangerously high. 

Research has also shown that men are more likely to be diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes than women, but the risk for women appears to increase after they’ve gone through the menopause. The reasons behind these differences between women and men are difficult to untangle, but the way their beta cells respond to stress is thought to play a part. 

Dr Aileen King and her team have studied male and female mice with stressed out beta cells and found that only the male mice developed type 2 diabetes. Now they want to understand exactly why this is, and how to combat beta cell stress in men and women. 

Research aims

Dr King and her team will use beta cells taken from male and female mice, and human men and women, and expose them to different levels of stress. They’ll then see if the male and female cells cope with stress in different ways. They’ll also test if different treatments work differently to reduce the stress in male vs female cells and mice. 

The team are particularly interested in two treatments: a new type 2 diabetes drug, called imeglimin, which works to lower blood sugar levels by helping the body to use its own insulin better. And specialist cells, called mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), which have the ability to reduce stress in cells around them. 

Lastly, they will run tests to understand exactly how MSCs work to reduce beta cell stress. 

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Understanding sex differences in how beta cells respond to stress could help researchers to develop new treatments for type 2 diabetes tailored specifically for men, pre-menopausal, and post-menopausal women.  

This research could also bring benefits for people with type 1 diabetes by giving us a better understanding of the ‘honeymoon period’ after diagnosis. And to improve the effectiveness of islet transplants, by helping to make better matches between beta cell transplant donors and recipients. 

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