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Research on new causes of type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a complex condition, and the chances of developing it depend on a mix of risk factors.    

Catherine Brannigan

Learning more about these factors is key to working out how to prevent and cure type 2 diabetes. Our scientists have been pivotal in building this knowledge.  

The role of genes in type 2 diabetes

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly made some of the first discoveries about the genetics of type 2 diabetes in the 1980s, thanks to funding we gave him at the start of his career.  

Since then, we’ve supported him to set up his own lab, establish the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge and become known worldwide for his discoveries.  

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly said:  

“The funding provided by Diabetes UK to researchers at an early stage of their career has an enormous catalytic effect, with many researchers going on to make major advances in understanding how type 2 diabetes develops.”  

In 1996 we boosted efforts to find the genetic causes of type 2 diabetes by setting up the type 2 diabetes Warren Collection.   

This collection of biological samples from 2,000 family members of people with type 2 diabetes has become the foundation of genetic studies into type 2 diabetes. Studies using the collection have revealed hundreds of genes linked to type 2 and help to pinpoint why some of us are more likely to develop the condition.   

Catherine Brannigan lives with type 2 diabetes, she said:  

“It was extremely important for me to know more about my diabetes and how it came about. After getting a better understanding of my condition I realised it’s not about being an overweight person, it’s about what’s going on inside your body that you can’t see.”

Ethnicity and type 2 diabetes risk  

In 1988 we provided early support for the SABRE study. It followed the health of over 4,000 people from South Asian, Black African or African Caribbean, and White European backgrounds to understand differences in type 2 diabetes risk and its drivers between certain ethnic groups.   

The study revealed that by 80, twice as many South Asian, Black African or African Caribbean people developed type 2 diabetes compared to White people.   

Over 30 years later, SABRE is still running. Its discoveries helped to push the need for Black and South Asian people to be screened for type 2 diabetes earlier than people from other ethnicities.

Helping ensure they can be diagnosed sooner and get support to reduce their risk and prevent type 2 diabetes.  

Looking to the future

But there’s much more to learn about how genetic, biological and environmental factors contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. And today, our researchers are working to uncover more.   

Like Dr Hanieh Yaghootkar, who is investigating how our genes influence where we store internal fat. In 2023, she found combinations of genes linked to higher levels of liver fat, helping us understand why some people with overweight or obesity develop type 2 diabetes and others don’t.   

Or Professor Martin Rutter, who showed insomnia may cause high blood sugar levels and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.   

And Professor Marc-Emmanuel Dumas who’s finding out how the bacteria living in our gut could have a hand in the development of type 2 diabetes.   

Together, these insights could unlock better ways to screen people's risk, find new treatments and uncover tailored ways to help people reduce their risk and prevent type 2 diabetes altogether.  

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