Handing over the baton in diabetes research, by Kotryna Temcinaite

Diabetes UK has been funding research for over 80 years, and there’s a lot to celebrate. Including our legacy in supporting the careers of the best diabetes scientists.  We give scientists and healthcare professionals prestigious awards called fellowships, which they can use to further their research and become independent.

That’s what our latest session at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference was all about: showcasing past Diabetes UK fellows in different areas of research alongside current fellows.

Celebrating research: legacies and future leaders

Brilliant diabetes scientists speaking at the session, from left to right, Pamela, Richard, Shareen, Andrew, (chair) Anna, Bo and Peter
The session got off to a great start, with Professor Andrew Hattersley, a huge advocate for supporting young researchers in diabetes, chairing the session. Together with his successful career and incredible discoveries in monogenic diabetes (diabetes caused by a single genetic change), Andrew has mentored and supported a number of brilliant diabetes scientists.

Understanding beta cells in Type 2 diabetes

Professor Peter Jones was first up, as he was awarded a Diabetes UK RD Lawrence Fellowship in 1987. It’s impossible to understand Type 2 diabetes and how to treat it without understanding how insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas work, which is what Peter began working on in the eighties.

During his fellowship, Peter wanted to find out how beta cells know when to release insulin. He discovered that they rely on calcium and also investigated the role of key proteins involved in insulin release. With this new research under his belt, he expanded our knowledge of beta cell biology. Peter said: “The fellowship kept me interested in beta cells for the next decade”.

He handed over to Dr Bo Liu, a current RD Lawrence fellow, who wants to understand how to boost the growth and survival of beta cells in Type 2 diabetes. We’re currently funding Bo’s project, which aims to further our understanding of beta cell biology and inform the development of new therapies to protect beta cells.

Since the eighties, Peter and other scientists have kept adding to our knowledge of how beta cells work bit by bit. This cumulative knowledge provided a platform for Bo, so she could discover a molecule called microRNA-33, which may regulate how beta cells grow.

Bo said: “The challenge for the next generation of scientists is to use this knowledge to develop new therapies.” She believes that if we could find a way to reduce the levels of microRNA-33 in beta cells using new treatments, we could increase beta cell growth – which could be beneficial for people with both types of diabetes.

Islet transplants and insulin production in Type 1 diabetes

Dr Shareen Forbes became Diabetes UK’s first Intermediate Clinical fellow in 2003. During her fellowship, Shareen focused on a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy and disappears after giving birth (also known as gestational diabetes). Women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy are at a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes later in life. Shareen hoped to find out how to predict the development of Type 2 diabetes very early, by studying gestational diabetes, to identify those at risk.

Now, she works to improve islet transplants for people with Type 1 diabetes and heads the Islet Transplant Programme in Scotland since it began in November 2010. Even though Shareen has shifted her scientific interests, the skills she gained during her fellowship are still vital every day.

Shareen handed over to Dr Richard Oram, who discovered that people with Type 1 diabetes still produce tiny amounts of insulin during his Diabetes UK Clinical Fellowship. This revolutionised our understanding of Type 1 diabetes and opened up new possibilities for future treatments that work to increase insulin production.

Richard talked about how, while working with Shareen and other scientists, they uncovered an easy way to find out if an islet transplant is functioning properly. We’re really pleased to be supporting Richard now as our latest Harry Keen Fellow, and you can read about his new research in an earlier research blog.

Genetic diabetes

We then moved on to Professor Anna Gloyn, (main picture at the top) who was a Diabetes UK fellow in 2004. During her fellowship, Anna was researching genetics to understand Type 2 diabetes. Her interest in genes stemmed from the work before she began her fellowship, where she discovered the genetic mutation behind the majority of neonatal diabetes, known as KCNJ11. This was a real moment in history for neonatal diabetes research that changed the way the condition was treated.

Anna was followed by Dr Pamela Brown, a Diabetes UK Sir George Alberti Training fellow. Pamela is using her fellowship to understand more about neonatal diabetes, now that we know what’s causing it thanks to Anna’s earlier research. Pamela’s research is still at an early stage, but she would like to improve the treatments and support that people living with neonatal diabetes receive.

It was really inspiring to see how the legacy of research continues and the next generation of leading diabetes researchers are building on knowledge gathered by our past Diabetes UK fellows. We truly believe that working together we can improve the lives of people with diabetes.

Read our latest research blogs.

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