What we’re doing about diabetes complications – by Kotryna Temcinaite

1019_researchfunding_infographic-dl-v4-01With your help, we’re currently investing over £2.8 million in research into the complications of diabetes. In this blog post, I’ll give you a quick overview of the ongoing projects our researchers are working on to combat complications, and you can read more about (or even adopt!) them on our website.


complications_brain_200x200The brain uses glucose as its main fuel and is very sensitive to levels of glucose in the blood. This is one of the reasons that the brain may be affected by diabetes; for example, research suggests a potential link between different forms of diabetes and dementia.

Professor Rory McCrimmon is investigating whether high blood glucose levels and regular hypos contribute to accelerated aging of the brain (seen in some people with diabetes). His findings could reveal a way to improve the defence systems in the brain. Meanwhile, Professor Annalisa Pastore is looking at how proteins clump together and whether this makes people with diabetes more likely to develop dementia. She is hoping to find new molecules that can prevent this from happening.

complications_eyes_200x200Small blood vessels at the back of the eye are extremely sensitive to high blood glucose levels and blood pressure, which can lead to retinopathy and even sight loss.

We supported early retinopathy research in the eighties, testing new mobile screening methods in Newcastle. This evolved into the current national eye screening programme, but we’re not done yet. We want to be able to detect eye complications as early as possible, which is why we’re funding Dr Ruth Hogg. She’s trying to figure out whether it’s possible to detect retinopathy earlier by looking at the smallest blood vessels in the eye using new technology.

Professor Heping Xu is concerned that a current long-term treatment of diabetic macular oedema (the major cause of vision loss in retinopathy) may damage peoples’ eyes. He’s looking at whether this current therapy has any negative effects on different types of cells found in the eye and hopes to improve the long-term management of retinopathy.

If we want to find a way to prevent complications in the eye, we need to understand exactly how they develop. Dr Marcus Fruttiger has developed methods to study retinopathy in human eyes donated by people with diabetes after their death. He’s not only analysing these eyes, but also creating a tissue bank, which will be a valuable resource for future retinopathy studies.


complications_feet_200x200People with diabetes can lose sensitivity in their feet, a complication known as neuropathy. If this happens, it’s difficult to tell if they’re putting too much pressure on certain areas of their feet when walking, which can lead to foot ulcers.

Dr Neil Reeves is planning to place special insoles in shoes that can measure the pressure and display it on a mobile phone, to test whether using these insoles could prevent foot ulcers. Dr Nina Petrova is working on another complication of the feet that affects bones: Charcot foot. She is testing new biomaterials (materials that can directly interact with your body) in the lab, which could potentially be injected into the foot to help it heal more quickly.


complications_heart_200x200High blood glucose levels can damage major blood vessels, leading to heart problems such as heart attacks. Dr Havovi Chichger is studying an artificial sweetener, called sucralose, which might be able to protect blood vessels, while Dr Colin Murdoch is interested in how blood vessels narrow and whether we can find new ways to prevent it.

Dr Karen Porter is looking at how diabetes can damage veins of the leg, which may help to improve heart bypass surgery. During a heart bypass, veins are moved from a person’s own leg to their heart. If those veins are damaged by diabetes, they can’t work as well, so we want to keep leg veins as healthy as we can.

Dr Lisa Heather is working out whether it’s possible to activate a protein called HIF (which could potentially protect against heart attacks) using drugs, and Dr Ramzi Ajjan is studying how blood clots develop and looking for new ways to make them easier to break down.


complications_kidney_200x200High blood glucose levels and high blood pressure may also damage the small blood vessels in the kidney, leading to kidney disease. Dr David Long is looking at key molecules linked to the early stages of kidney disease and at the lymphatics system – responsible for removing fluid and cells involved in inflammation from organs. He wants to see if targeting this system could be a new way to treat kidney disease.

Dr Mirela Delibegovic is seeing whether a group of molecules in the brain and body that are affected by cannabis could be targeted with new drugs to improve kidney function, while Professor Paul Squires wants to know how glucose affects the way that cells in the kidney talk to each other. He hopes to find ways to stop or prevent the damage caused by glucose.

Last but not least, we also bought a new microscope for Professor Coward, which he’s using to study kidney cells and drive our understanding of kidney disease forward.


As you can see, our researchers are working on a huge range of projects aiming to improve the treatment and prevention of diabetes complications from lots of different angles. If you’d like to support any of this research or find out more about it, check out our Research Projects webpage.

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