The positives in negative research findings – by Faye Riley

Last week, the results of a landmark global study looking at Type 1 diabetes in teenagers were published. This study was a major achievement. It involved an incredible 4,460 teenagers with Type 1 diabetes, across three continents. And we were really excited to hear what the scientists had found, even though the results weren’t quite what we’d expected.

The study, called AdDIT, was funded by Diabetes UK, together with the British Heart Foundation and JDRF. The researchers were trying to find out if taking drugs that lower blood pressure (called ACE inhibitors) and cholesterol levels (called statins), could reduce the risk of kidney, eye and heart disease in young people with Type 1 diabetes. We know that these drugs can be really helpful in adults, but this study was the first to explore the potential benefits for young people.

But AdDIT found they didn’t help. Neither ACE inhibitors nor statins were shown to reduce the risk of complications.

So was this all a waste of time?

Absolutely not. Although big breakthroughs in diabetes research are wonderful, positive findings are not the whole story. Behind every advancement in our understanding of diabetes and improvement in treatments and care, there will be a trail of negative results.

We do research to find out the answer to something we don’t yet know. Sometimes a treatment that scientists think will help, will do just that. And many other times they’ll find out it doesn’t have any effect. And knowing this is just as important.

The scientists may find it disappointing that they didn’t find what they were expecting to. And it could mean that the research takes a little longer until the findings can be used to improve the lives of people with diabetes. But we still need to know about and champion these negative results.

Why do we so rarely hear about negative findings?

If negative findings are so common and useful, why do you never read about them over your cornflakes? Well, studies with negative results struggle to get attention. News stories and other platforms that talk about science want to tell you about the exciting new breakthroughs. And might not consider negative findings to be important enough.

But this is a problem. Not sharing negative results can actually be detrimental for science. For researchers working in the same area, it’s really helpful to know what hasn’t worked for others. Otherwise, they might decide to research the same thing themselves and end up wasting time and money.

Negative findings are also an essential building block to help the scientific community work out the next steps and develop future research studies.

What can we take away from AdDIT

While the treatments haven’t been shown to be effective, this research will improve our understanding of how Type 1 diabetes progresses in teenagers. It can open up new avenues of research into how to potentially prevent complications in the future.

The researchers also believe that the impact of the treatment might be seen further down the line. That’s why we funded a follow-up study to allow the team to learn more about the effects of the drugs for a while longer.

Another cause for celebration is that thousands of teenagers volunteered to get involved. They were asked to take medication regularly and have lots of check-ups over the course of the study (between two to four years). It’s inspiring that so many young people saw the value of taking part and committed their time to this important research.

Sophie Hampton and her research nurse Sara Bennett

Sophie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 11, and has been a participant of the AdDIT trial since 2010. Sophie told us: “I love taking part in the research and I’m really pleased to do what I can to support other people with Type 1 diabetes and help potentially find a cure.

“I can’t believe I’ve been doing it this long! By helping to give blood and urine samples, DNA and data to the AdDIT study, I’m hoping it will benefit people with Type 1 diabetes in the future. The study also helps me with regulation of my blood glucose levels. I hope I can keep meeting with the research team for many years to come.”

In this case, rather than answering a question, AdDIT has perhaps left more to be unravelled. Our researchers and other scientists around the globe are ready for this challenge. They can now build on these important findings to improve the lives of young people with Type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes UK supports over 4 million people in the UK affected by diabetes, through our research, information and services. Your donation will help our work to understand the causes of diabetes, find ways to help people manage their diabetes – and try to prevent and, one day, cure the condition. You will also help us provide services such as our life-changing support holidays for children and families, and the Diabetes UK Helpline.

There are many ways to give, every donation counts, and helps people with diabetes, their families and carers. Find out more about how your money helps.

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