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Can anti-ageing drugs treat foot ulcers?

Project summary

People with diabetes are more at risk of developing foot ulcers that can be difficult to heal. Scientists have discovered lots of cells in foot ulcers go wrong and become zombie-like, where they shut down but won’t die. Dr Wilkinson wants to find out if these zombie cells play a role in slowing down healing and whether killing them with anti-ageing drugs could speed the healing up. In the future, this could lead to a new treatment for people living with diabetes and foot ulcers that could transform their quality of life.

Background to research

People with diabetes are more likely to develop foot ulcers. They can take a very long time to heal and, in serious cases, can lead to amputations. Scientists think a process that happens to our cells as we age might help explain why foot ulcers can be slow to heal in people with diabetes.  

As we get older our cells can enter a zombie-like state, where even though they’re no longer needed, they don’t die. These zombie cells release harmful products that can damage our bodies, and scientists have found them in high numbers in diabetic foot ulcers.  

Anti-ageing drugs that work to kill zombie cells already exist, and are used to treat some age-related health conditions. Dr Holly Wilkinson has shown that these drugs can help wounds to heal faster in mice, suggesting that they might help to treat diabetic foot ulcers. 

Research aims

Dr Wilkinson now wants to better understand the role zombie cells play in foot ulcer healing in people with diabetes and test if anti-ageing drugs could improve healing.  

Dr Wilkinson’s PhD student will study foot ulcer samples taken from people with diabetes and measure how many zombie cells there are in each sample. Next, they’ll match this information to health records, which will tell them whether each ulcer did or did not heal. If there are more zombie cells in the ulcers that did not heal, it will give us evidence that these cells are linked to poor healing in diabetic foot ulcers. 

Next, Dr Wilkinson and her PhD student will find out if any existing drugs that target zombie cells could improve foot ulcer healing. They will take samples of skin from people with diabetes who’ve had surgery to treat their foot ulcers. In the laboratory, the PhD student will make small wounds in the samples and add different anti-ageing drugs to some of them.  

They’ll monitor if the wounds treated with anti-ageing drugs heal faster than the wounds without, and identify which drugs look to work the best. Finally, they’ll test the most promising drugs in mice.  

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

This research will tell us whether existing anti-ageing drugs could become an effective new treatment for people with diabetes and foot ulcers. If successful, the findings could rapidly lead to a clinical trial – a crucial step to making new treatments available.  

More effective treatments could reduce the risk of amputations and help people with diabetes to live better, healthier lives. 

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