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Seeing type 2 diabetes in 3D

Project summary

We know that a person’s genetic makeup is important in type 2 diabetes but we don’t know exactly how they’re linked. Dr Jennings is going to study genes related to beta cell and pancreas development and the 3D switches that control them. This will give us a better understanding of why type 2 diabetes develops, which could lead to new therapies to prevent and treat it. 

Background to research

Beta cells in the pancreas make insulin which is important in keeping blood sugar levels in the healthy range. In people living with type 2 diabetes, beta cells don’t work properly but we don’t know exactly why this happens. 

We all have changes in our genetic makeup. A particular type of genetic change some people have (called a single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) has been shown to affect how well beta cells work. But we don’t know the role SNPs play in a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Dr Jennings also thinks it’s possible that some SNPs may alter how the pancreas and beta cells are formed during a baby’s growth in the womb.  

In our cells, our DNA is tightly packed into a 3D structure known as chromatin. By folding and packaging it in this way, different parts of our DNA come into contact with other parts of our DNA. This means that genes can then be controlled by the on/ off switches they come into contact with.    

Research aims

Dr Jennings aims to work out how SNPs in people with type 2 diabetes may affect key events during the development of the pancreas and beta cells in the womb. She also wants to find out about the on/off switches that control those genes. 

Firstly, Dr Jennings will identify those parts of our genetic makeup that control pancreas development. She’ll do this by using human embryo and foetus cells that have been provided for research under strict ethical conditions.  

Next, Dr Jennings will make sense of the chromatin in the forming pancreas and how the genes interact with their on/off switches.  She’ll then look for clues to see if genetic switches could play a role in a person's risk of type 2 diabetes. She’ll delve deeper into any important findings and will double-check them by studying zebrafish. 

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Type 2 diabetes affects millions of people in the UK and around the world. This project will shed new light on the origins of the condition at the very earliest stages of life and start to answer how a genetic risk of type 2 diabetes links with pancreas and beta cell development. This will also improve our understanding of who is at greatest risk of developing type 2 diabetes in later life.   

In the future, these insights could also open doors to new ways of preventing and treating type 2 diabetes. 

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