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Targeting our body’s recycling system to treat Type 2 diabetes

Project summary

Type 2 diabetes can get progressively worse over time, as insulin-producing cells in the pancreas stop working properly. Dr Catherine Arden believes something goes wrong with a ‘recycling’ process in our insulin-producing cells, known as autophagy. Her PhD students will carry out experiments to unravel how and why this happens. This could hold the key to finding new treatments to stop Type 2 diabetes from progressing in the future.

Background to research

In Type 2 diabetes, insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas stop working properly over time and eventually die, leaving fewer surviving cells. Dr Arden has shown that the number of surviving beta cells someone with Type 2 diabetes has is, in part, down to a process called autophagy.

Autophagy is like a recycling system; your body cleans out damaged cell components, breaking them down to build new ones. But in Type 2 diabetes this process goes wrong in some beta cells. This causes toxic molecules to build up, causing beta cells to stop working properly and eventually die.

Beta cells in people with Type 2 diabetes are no longer able to properly detect how much glucose is in the blood, and Dr Arden believes that this causes autophagy to go wrong. But we don’t yet fully understand how or why this happens.

Research aims

Dr Arden wants to understand, on a molecular level, how and why Type 2 diabetes progresses and to find ways to keep beta cells healthy. Her PhD student will use beta cells from mice and humans to find out how glucose controls autophagy, and unravel the steps involved.

The student will expose beta cells to high levels of sugar and fat, to mimic conditions in the pancreas of people with Type 2 diabetes. They will then look at how the cells behave, find out how the autophagy process is disrupted, and determine how important a role this disruption plays in causing beta cell death.

As a final step, the student plans to carry out similar experiments in mice with Type 2 diabetes, to see if they find the same effects. If they do, they will be one step closer to understanding what goes wrong inside the beta cells of people with Type 2 diabetes. 

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Understanding how and why Type 2 diabetes gets worse over time will help scientists to find new treatments to stop this happening – something no medications for Type 2 diabetes are currently able to do.

If we could stop Type 2 diabetes from progressing, people with Type 2 wouldn’t need to take more and more medications over time, making it easier to have safe blood sugar levels and a lower risk of serious complications.  

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