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Language lessons for kidney cells

Project summary

High blood sugar levels can affect the way kidney cells talk to each other, which can lead to kidney damage. Professor Claire Hills wants to understand the different languages that kidney cells speak and which ones are dangerous to kidney cell health. This will help researchers to create new treatments that translate or stop the dangerous languages and reduce the risk of complications in people living with diabetes.

Background to research

Our kidneys play an important part in keeping us healthy by filtering our blood. In people with diabetes, cells in their kidneys can be damaged by high blood sugar levels, which causes inflammation. This can lead to a process called senescence, when cells age but don’t die as they usually should. When these senescent cells build up, they can injure the kidneys. The kidneys eventually stop working properly through a condition known as nephropathy. 

Healthy cells can talk to each other via chemical signals, which helps to make sure each cell is doing its job properly. When kidney cells are inflamed and damaged, this affects the signals they send, or the ‘language' they speak, so other kidney cells can’t understand them as well. These communication problems can then cause further damage to the kidney cells. 

This process also happens in eye cells, which can lead to a complication of diabetes called retinopathy, but researchers have started to develop treatments that block some of the damaging conversations between eye cells.

Research aims

Prof Hills wants to see if some of these brand new eye treatments will also work for kidney cells. She and her PhD student will grow human kidney cells in conditions that mimic diabetes. They’ll then listen to how the cells talk to each other by investigating the chemical signals, or languages, and see if different languages spoken cause cell damage.

Once they know which language the kidney cells are speaking, they’ll give them the new eye treatment. They should then be able to see if this helps to translate what the cells are saying back into the right language, or stops them from speaking all together. This should help the researchers to understand which language is dangerous to kidney cells, and how to stop them from speaking it.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

People with diabetes have an increased risk of kidney problems, and this is sometimes linked to eye problems too. Understanding the languages that cells use to talk to each other will help researchers to improve treatments for nephropathy and retinopathy, and better protect people with diabetes from these devastating complications.

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