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Last Update: 2011-11-14   Source: Research Headlines
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World Diabetes Day: EU-funded researchers work to meet global challenge

World Diabetes Day is the leading global awareness campaign for this chronic disorder, held on 14 November each year. More than 346 million people have diabetes, and over 80% of deaths related to this disease occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Europe, diabetes currently affects around 30 million people and this is only set to rise further, with 10 per cent of the continent's population expected to be suffering from the disease by 2025. Type 2 diabetes, in particular, is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide and contributes to the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and end-stage renal disease. Projections are grim: more than 900 million people are expected to be diagnosed with or at high risk of type 2 diabetes within the next two decades. Not only does this impact the lives of those who suffer, but it also puts pressure on the global health system. European researchers and the EU are hard at work to find and develop better treatment options, and raise awareness about this chronic disease. The following is just a glimpse of what Europeans are doing to help those who need it most.

Diabetes © Shutterstock
©  Shutterstock

There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. The former is characterised by a decrease in the production of insulin and the need to administer insulin to regulate blood sugar. The latter is an adult disorder, caused by the body's inability to use effectively the insulin produced by the pancreas . Professor Juleen Zierath of the Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden, the recipient of a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant has launched a study to investigate the mechanism that controls insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes. Of particular interest is to determine how diet and exercise impact the course of the disease, and to identify the underlying cellular mechanisms. The results of the ICEBERG ('Discovery of type 2 diabetes targets') project could prove instrumental in fuelling new drug therapies to fight this disorder. ICEBERG is backed with EUR 2.5 million under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Professor Zierath has identified genes regulating cell energy consumption that have altered expression in people with type 2 diabetes. Such alterations in expression occur via a process called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) methylation, which is a form of 'epigenetic' regulation. In this way, gene expression is changed without affecting the underlying DNA sequence. Professor Zierath seeks to confirm whether DNA methylation of genes that control insulin sensitivity is impacted by severe obesity and also by exercise.

Also driving diabetes research in Europe are four important projects that are fostering cooperation on an international level: EPI-MIGRANT; MEDIGENE; RODAM; and GIFTS. Each project is spotlighting the genetic and environmental factors resulting in variations in prevalence and incidence of metabolic disorders in specific well-characterised populations. They all seek to identify novel genetic and other risk factors for diabetes and obesity. The results could play an important role in improving diagnosis and treatment, and could lead to the creation of new therapeutic targets.

The four projects on gene-environment interactions in diabetes and obesity in specific populations are forging collaborations between European researchers and colleagues in Asia and Africa, as well as in Oceania. This interaction will bolster research on a global level, effectively working to make a common goal a reality.

Backed with almost EUR 3 million in funding, EPI-MIGRANT ('Identification of epigenetic markers underlying increased risk of T2D in South Asians') kicked off earlier this month and brings together experts from Australia, Finland, India, Italy, Japan, Mauritius and the United Kingdom. The project partners are evaluating the lifestyle, environmental, genetic and epigenetic risk factors involved in the particularly high rates of type 2 diabetes in South Asian populations. How these different risk factors interact is a question the team will answer.

MEDIGENE ('Genetic and environmental factors of insulin resistance syndrome and its long-term complications in immigrant Mediterranean populations') is putting the genetic and environmental factors of insulin resistance in immigrant Mediterranean populations (including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey) in Europe in the spotlight. The MEDIGENE consortium is integrating the ancestry of Mediterranean populations in epidemiology, locus refining and Genome Wide Association Studies. The project has clinched EUR 2.9 million in funding under FP7. The consortium consists of experts from Albania, Algeria, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Morocco, Romania, Russia, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey.

RODAM ('Type 2 diabetes and obesity among sub-Saharan African native and migrant populations: dissection of environment and endogenous predisposition'), with EU funding totalling EUR 2.9 million, will kick off in January 2012. The project partners plan to tackle a number of key issues of type 2 diabetes and obesity in Ghanaian populations who live in Europe and in their home country. Clinical, (epi)genetic, lifestyle, psychosocial factors and health service utilisation will be assessed. Experts from Belgium, Germany, Ghana, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are part of the RODAM team.

The GIFTS (' Genomic and lifestyle predictors of foetal outcome relevant to diabetes and obesity and their relevance to prevention strategies in South Asian peoples') project, which starts in February 2012, is set to investigate the prevalence and incidence of diabetes in a number of South Asian populations. Of particular interest will be the early life predictors of disease. GIFTS, with almost EUR 3 million in EU funding, brings together experts from Bangladesh, Germany, Finland, India, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Commenting on the importance of working together to fight diabetes, Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn says: 'Global problems require global actions and solutions. Diabetes is a disease, which affects all countries in the world, rich and poor. Only by joining forces internationally among researchers, healthcare professionals and industry, can we meaningful address those challenges. We are committed for reaping the benefits of international cooperation in this field.'

The European Commission is planning a special event in Brussels from 9 to 10 February 2012, where national funding agencies from cooperation partner countries and high-level scientists will come together to identify key questions in gene-environment interactions in diabetes and obesity research in specific populations. This event aims to further explore the potential for international cooperation in the field and will be a major step towards a global initiative on diabetes/obesity research in specific populations. More information will be available on the research events website from the beginning of December.


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