Talking about Type 2 and genes in a pub – by Kotryna Temcinaite

It’s Diabetes Week 11-17 June and we want everyone to know diabetes and fight it. And who can deliver the message better than a world-leading scientist at the forefront of diabetes research.

So we asked Professor Anna Gloyn to share her views in a SciBar talk (a free and informal science talk in a pub, open to everyone) organised together with the Oxford branch of British Science Association.

Meet the researcher – Professor Anna Gloyn

Prof Anna Gloyn giving a SciBar talk

Anna Gloyn is a Professor of Molecular Genetics and Metabolism, and a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow in Basic Biomedical Science. She is based jointly at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism, and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford.

Anna is trying to understand how changes in our genes may influence whether or not we develop Type 2 diabetes. By understanding how our genes work, Anna hopes to learn the important processes that control blood glucose levels and to identify new ways to treat Type 2 diabetes.

She is especially interested in tailoring diabetes treatments to individuals, what is known as ‘precision medicine’.

A serious talk doesn’t have to be dull

Anna’s props

For the talk Anna came armed with a collection of fluffy toys representing different cells in our body, a quiz for the audience, and even some fake blood to illustrate the difference in blood thickness between healthy people and people with diabetes.

She started her talk by emphasising how serious diabetes is: every six seconds someone dies from diabetes and its complications, and every 2 minutes someone new is diagnosed worldwide. So it’s not an overexaggeration to call it a global crisis. And around 90 per cent of all diabetes cases is Type 2.

Our lifestyles

Our lifestyles have changed significantly over the last decades, with people sitting more and moving less. But it was good to see that the audience attending Anna’s talk chose to walk or cycle to the talk, as active lifestyle may help to decrease your risk of Type 2.

Using the props she brought, Anna showed how insulin, produced by the beta cells in the pancreas, coordinates fat, muscle, and liver cells to decrease glucose level in the blood. And she also explained which parts of this coordinated action may go wrong in Type 2 diabetes.

Studying genes to understand Type 2 and fight it

Currently, all treatment strategies for Type 2 diabetes focus on lowering blood glucose levels and keeping them under control. So we’re treating the symptoms and not addressing the cause.

Small changes in our genes may define how likely we are to develop Type 2. With current technology we can read genes and look for such changes. Understanding what they might mean for the function of insulin-producing beta cells and other cells involved in keeping our blood glucose under control, can help us design specific treatments.

And going even further, we could tailor the treatments to specific people with Type 2, making their medicine personal.

So is it genes or the environment?

The audience

After the talk, the audience had some tough questions: so what’s more important in Type 2, genes or the environment?

Anna acknowledged it was an excellent question and explained that the environment, or our lifestyles, which have changed significantly, is more likely to be responsible for the growing numbers of Type 2. Changes in genes happen much slower, so they couldn’t possibly explain the rise. But at the same time, genes play a very important role individually: they define how our bodies respond to the environment, as some people develop Type 2, while others don’t.

Honorary guest at the talk

Anna’s dad was attending the talk as well. He said he immensely enjoyed hearing Anna explain her work. It was at the level where everyone could understand such a complex topic.

He commented: “I didn’t know a huge amount about Type 2 diabetes. I had a fairly good grasp on the subject, but the numbers of people affected by Type 2 are quite alarming, they’re much bigger than I thought.”

Anna gave a brilliant talk and hopefully now more people feel that we have to know diabetes and fight it.

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