Research into diabetes

Diabetes is a growing problem which damages your body in many ways. Dr Stephen Wheatcroft tells Sarah Brealey how he’s trying to find a cure.

The problem of diabetes

Diabetes raises your risk of many types of heart and circulatory diseases. This includes heart attack and stroke, as well as critical limb ischaemia (which can lead to amputation) and retinopathy (which can lead to sight loss).

Once you have diabetes, it is a lifelong condition. It means your blood sugar levels become too high.

The number of people with diabetes is rising fast, both in the UK and worldwide – in particular because of increasing levels of obesity. It is estimated that more than one in 16 people in the UK has diabetes (diagnosed or undiagnosed). There are an estimated 4 million people living with diabetes in the UK.

Dr Stephen Wheatcroft at Leeds University is researching the links between diabetes and CVD. He says: “I am driven by the fact that we are in a global pandemic of diabetes which is growing rapidly, and knowing that drugs to tackle insulin resistance have been few and far between."

Understanding the problem

Dr Wheatcroft is researching why diabetes has so many damaging effects on your body, looking in particular at how diabetes affects blood vessels.

In the early stages of diabetes, sometimes called “pre-diabetes”, your body starts to become resistant to the effects of insulin. It has to produce more and more insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. At this point your blood sugar levels will still be normal, so diabetes can’t be diagnosed, but this insulin resistance lies behind many of the damaging ways diabetes affects your body.

Eventually, your blood sugar levels can no longer be controlled, however much insulin is produced – at this point diabetes is diagnosed.

Dr Wheatcroft is looking at a naturally occurring protein produced by the liver called ‘insulin-like growth factor binding protein’ or IGFBP1.

Endothelial cells treated with IGFBP1

Human coronary artery endothelial cells treated with IGFBP1. IGFBP1 promotes cell migration and helps blood vessels to repair themselves, shown by the alignment of actin fibres (green lines) in the cytoskeleton.

Finding new treatments

Dr Wheatcroft’s research has shown that, in mice, a higher level of IGFBP1: 

  • reduces your risk of developing diabetes
  • reduces your risk of developing heart and circulatory disease
  • reduces insulin resistance, and
  • helps blood vessels repair themselves.

“It seems to tick all the boxes,” he says. “What we are working on at the moment is learning more about how the protein is producing those effects.”

IGFBP1 can’t be given orally (for example as a tablet), only as an injection, so isn’t in itself ideal as a medication. Dr Wheatcroft says: “We are looking at whether we could make a similar molecule that you could give as a tablet.”

A new medication would need thorough clinical trials, so would be at least five to ten years away.

However, there are things that you can do now, both to reduce your risk of diabetes or reduce its damaging effects if you have it already.

Dr Wheatcroft says: “You can also increase IGFBP1 through exercise, which is one way that being active can reduce your heart risk.”

BHF fundingDr Stephen Wheatcroft and his team

Dr Wheatcroft (pictured right with his team) says: “BHF funding has been vitally important to this work. 

“My own research training began with a BHF-funded clinical research training fellowship. It then supported my career development through an intermediate clinical research training fellowship. At the moment I have European Research Council funding and continue to be supported by the BHF through several project grants. 

“So it would be impossible for me to achieve what I have achieved without BHF funding, and without all the people who support the BHF.” 

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