Diabetes breakthrough at university

Last updated 05:00 05/02/2013

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A surprising discovery by scientists at the University of Auckland's Maurice Wilkins Centre will likely create better treatments for people living with type 2 diabetes.

Around six per cent of people worldwide have the condition where sugar levels in the blood are high because insulin, which breaks down the sugar for energy, can't be produced or recognised by the body.

Team leader Professor Peter Shepherd has been working on the project for six years, with researcher Dr Emmanuelle Cognard, after receiving a Health Research Council grant.

Shepherd said the research had led to two main discoveries: a missing link in the way the body releases insulin and that people carrying a particular gene, TCF7L2, are more susceptible to getting the disease.

"What it tells us is a lot more about how insulin is released into the body than from a normal cell and that gives us new ways to design drugs to stimulate that process so people can potentially avoid having to have insulin injections," he said.

"It also starts to tell us why this gene is causing these problems and allows us to start designing specific strategies for people who have a specific genetic defect and that's quite exciting."

There are more than 40 different genes that play a part in a person inheriting type 2 diabetes but this particular gene is the most prevalent in the world.

Shepherd said only half the story behind type 2 diabetes was known before this discovery.

"It has long been known that insulin is secreted from beta-cells in the pancreas in response to rising blood glucose levels and that the insulin in turn controls glucose levels," he said.

"However the mechanisms controlling insulin secretion have not been fully understood."

The research grant given to the team was designed to look at how high glucose levels affected the body starting at the heart, Shepherd said, so six years later a completely different discovery was surprising.

"It's not what we expected when we started the project but that's how science goes," he said.

"We would think that if it all holds up over the next couple of years it would certainly change the way we think about how insulin is released into the body."

Shepherd said if all goes ahead, and the research isn't challenged, lives could be saved through better treatment and medication produced in Auckland.

"That's the other advantage is that we have a facility here in Auckland which makes new drugs and that's quite rare in the world," he said.

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"Once we start understanding this mechanism a little better we will be able to start designing therapies or drugs to manipulate the system even more."

- Auckland Now

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