This week is Diabetes Awareness Week in the UK, which aims to not only raise awareness of the condition, which is currently diagnosed in around 3.9 million people – that’s one in 15 – in the UK alone, but also how changes in diet and lifestyle can help to manage diabetes and reduce the risk of contracting it.
Nationally someone gets diagnosed with diabetes every two minutes. Diabetes has a huge impact on long-term health, contributing to 169 amputations, 680 strokes, and 530 heart attacks every single week.
New research underway at the FRAME Alternatives Laboratory in Nottingham is focused on the development of insulin resistance in skeletal muscle (one of the first and most significant steps in the cascade that leads to Type II Diabetes).
PhD student Andrew Wilhelmsen is carrying out the research, which covers a spectrum of approaches ‘from bench to bedside’ to try and paint a comprehensive picture of how and why insulin resistance occurs.
He explains: “Type II diabetes (T2D) accounts for around 90 percent of diagnoses. The condition means the pancreas produces some insulin, but its function is impaired and/or it is no longer produced in sufficient quantity. T2D is frequently associated with lifestyle factors such as diet, sedentariness and aging, which are commonly linked by obesity.
“Skeletal muscle plays a vital role in maintaining blood glucose concentrations, as the major site of dietary glucose disposal in healthy individuals. While human studies allow us to research a multitude of metabolic scenarios, some of the ‘basic’ elements – the how and why – can be confused by other bodily systems, tissues, and environmental factors.
“Animal studies can offer valuable insights, with levels of experimental control and degrees of risk that may not be tenable in human studies. However, they can also present many issues, due to fundamental differences between rodents and humans such as the muscle fibre type and composition, fat tissue type and distribution, biological ageing processes and responses to diet and exercise.
“Furthermore, animal models of T2D are typically modelled through manipulation of a single gene – known as monogenic – whereas human T2D is usually driven by a multitude of, and interaction between, environmental and genetic factors.”
Alternatives to animal models in diabetes research
Andrew’s research includes human exercise interventions, cross-sectional metabolic profiling and muscle-cell culture studies. “The latter is where the FRAME Alternatives Laboratory comes in. To overcome some of the challenges in ‘basic’ research, we use what is called ‘human primary cell culture’.
“For this type of research, we recruit human volunteers and obtain tiny samples of muscle tissue, from which we can isolate dormant ‘satellite’ cells, which can be stimulated and grown to form large, tubular, muscle cells that contain many of the fundamental components and properties of ‘real’ muscle fibres. We can condition these cells with nutrient mixtures that mimic the circulatory environment in obese or T2D individuals.
Driving better research
“Advances in our understanding of whole-systems, muscle and cell biology are better enabling application of the 3R’s (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animals in experiments) to drive better research, better data and better patient outcomes,” Andrew explains. “Indeed, thanks to more relevant cell culture models, modern drug design technology, and greater emphasis on well-designed human interventional studies, the tide is turning on the once-standard use of animals in many lines of scientific study.”
For more information on Andrew’s insulin research, read his guest blog written for the FRAME website.
For information about Diabetes Week UK 2020: www.diabetes.org.uk/Get_involved/Diabetes-Week