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Top grants awarded for diabetes research

10 September 2015
120,000 Australians affected by type 1 diabetes

Two researchers have been awarded grants totalling $4.5 million to further their work into type 1 diabetes.

Two University of Sydney professors have been awarded grants totaling more than 4.5 million dollars to further their research into type 1 diabetes, a chronic disease affecting more than 120,000 Australians.

Announced this week by the Hon. Christopher Pyne, Minister for Education and Training, the grants were awarded to Professor Philip O’Connell, Westmead Millennium Institute, and Professor Alicia Jenkins, Clinical Trials Centre.

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic auto-immune disease that destroys the body’s insulin-producing cells, and incidence in Australia is increasing. Whilst insulin injections allows people to lead productive lives, it is an imperfect treatment severely impacts on quality of life and leaves diabetes sufferers at risk of severe complications such as blindness, kidney failure and vascular disease.

Professor Philip O’Connell said that until now treatment for type 1 diabetes has focused on methods of insulin delivery to manage complications of the disease.

“If we really want to make a difference to people’s lives then we need to shift the focus from managing the consequences of diabetes to developing a cure and disease prevention,” he said.

Professor O’Connell’s research focuses on human islet transplantation which takes healthy insulin-producing islet cells from a donor pancreas and infuses them into the liver of a patient with type 1 diabetes. There the islet cells populate and start producing insulin, providing a practical cure for the debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

“Human islet transplantation provides a virtual cure for people with type 1 diabetes, but a major obstacle that prevents its widespread use is the need for powerful, lifelong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent islet rejection,” he said.

The four-year research program will aim to develop alternative strategies that promote immune tolerance towards transplanted islets, thereby making islet transplantation a viable option for more people living with type 1 diabetes.

“This grant could mean that one day patients won’t need insulin injections or pumps, and medical complications will be a thing of the past,” Professor O’Connell said.

“It will bring us closer to achieving the goal of drug-free immunosuppression, which may also benefit the recipients of other types of transplants.”

Professor Jenkins’ research concentrates on preventing vision loss in type 1 diabetes patients, as damage to the back of the eye is a common complication of the disease, and can lead to blindness.

“Our study will investigate whether fenofibrate, a drug that is already known to be safe, can slow or reverse eye damage in adults with type 1 diabetes, as well as other complications including nerve, kidney and cardiovascular damage,” she said.

“This drug is currently used to reduce the risk of diabetic eye damage in patients with type 2 diabetes, but there are no studies of this treatment in patients with type 1 diabetes.

“This grant will enable us to conduct a strong trial for Australian adults with type 1 diabetes, and the results are likely to be of global interest,” she said.

Professor Laurent Rivory, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) said “The award of these projects through the JDRF Scheme represents a real accolade for the contribution that Sydney researchers and their partners in the health and medical research sector are making towards the treatment of type 1 diabetes and its complications.”

The grants were issued by the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN), a clinical research program led by Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Australia, which brings together researchers, patients, industry and international networks to share a strong focus on patient benefit.

Professor Philip O’Connell is Director of the Centre for Transplant and Renal Research at the Westmead Millennium Institute and Director of Transplant Medicine and the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at Westmead Hospital, University of Sydney. He is also director of the Australian Clinical Islet Transplant Consortium, and led the Australian Islet Transplantation Program from 2005-2011. His research is currently focused primarily on rejection of islet transplants, and developing viable non-human islets as a clinical therapy.

Professor Alicia Jenkins is Professor of Diabetes and Vascular Medicine at the University of Sydney. She is a clinical endocrinologist and director of leading research groups exploring ways to treat and prevent diabetes and it complications. In addition to her research contributions, her public good work has led the growth of the international programs for access to insulin and related diabetes supplies that have eased and saved the lives of many people with diabetes in over 45 disadvantaged countries.


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