In people with diabetes, a major blood vessel in the heart, the aorta, is often less flexible. This can lead to complications such as heart disease. We don’t yet know why this lack of flexibility occurs in people with diabetes, but Dr Derek Warren believes it could be linked to cells in our blood vessels. He wants to study these cells and see how they respond to high blood sugar levels. Understanding this could help us reduce the risk of heart disease in people with diabetes in the future.
Background to research
The aorta is one of the major blood vessels in our heart. Like all blood vessels in our body, the aorta is elastic and can expand and contract with changes in our blood pressure. Blood vessels are elastic because their walls are covered with vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs) that stretch. If these VSMCs lose their flexibility, it makes the blood vessels less elastic.
People with diabetes commonly have a less elastic aorta, and as a result are at higher risk of heart disease. Dr Warren believes this could be linked to the VSMCs losing their flexibility. We don’t know why VSMCs lose their flexibility, but Dr Warren believes it might be due to raised blood sugar levels.
Dr Warren will grow VSMCs in the lab on special materials that mimic a flexible and a stiff aorta. He will then treat them with different amounts of sugar and watch how the VSMCs respond. He wants to see if the high levels of sugar reduce the flexibility of the VSMCs, and if the stiff or flexible aorta walls play a role.
After this, Dr Warren will also use special chemicals that cause the VSMCs to contract. He’s interested to see why and how the glucose levels have affected the VSMCs ability to change shape.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
Heart disease is a major complication that can affect people with all types of diabetes. By understanding specifically how higher blood sugar levels cause the aorta to get stiff, this research could help us to develop more treatments in the future to help people with diabetes to live healthier for longer.