5 Ways Sydney Researchers Are Reducing the Burden of Diabetes

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During National Diabetes Week, we take a look at 5 of our recent studies that aim to reduce the burden of diabetes, both in Australia and abroad.

Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia, with one person diagnosed every five minutes, according to Diabetes Australia. Our researchers are actively searching not only for a cure, but also for ways people can manage and treat their diabetes now.

Here’s a quick look at some of our recent breakthroughs:

1. Treating blindness in type 1 diabetes

A new study is investigating whether blindness in diabetes patients can be reversed. The trial, undertaken by the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, is testing whether the cholesterol-lowering drug, fenofibrate, could protect retinal tissue, slowing and even reversing early damage to the eye. By tracking changes in the back of the eye through non-invasive imaging, they can test how well the drug is working.

“We already know fenofibrate slows and reverses vision loss for type 2 diabetes, as well as protects against kidney and nerve damage,” said Professor Alicia Jenkins, the lead researcher in the trial. “We are now calling for people around the world to help us find out if this is the case for those with the more severe type 1 diabetes.”

2. Developing a new device to replace pin-prick testing

Monitoring blood levels with the prick of a finger could be replaced with just a breath test in a matter of years, thanks to a ketone monitoring device that will soon be taken from the lab to the clinic for trials.

“The breath ketone analyser will be a less invasive and far more accurate way for people with diabetes to monitor their health, by measuring blood ketone levels in the breath,” said Professor Xiaoke Yi from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, who leads the multidisciplinary research team in collaboration with AusMed Global and the Australian Trade and Investment Commission.

The device measures blood ketone levels in the breath to detect and prevent incidences of ketoacidosis, a life-threatening event that occurs when the body does not cause enough insulin, causing the liver to produce high levels of ketones that damage the surrounding organs.

3. Preventing diabetes by changing your diet 

Professor of Human Nutrition at the Charles Perkins Centre, Jennie Brand-Miller has been a leading contributor to several world-first studies that have advanced the Glycemic Index (GI) from scientific theory to practice, with major implications for the treatment and prevention of diabetes.

For patients with type 2 diabetes, Professor Brand-Miller’s research showed that a low-GI diet improved average blood glucose levels, a key biomarker that predicts complications. Subsequent trials used a low-GI diet for weight loss, concluding that it’s possible to delay or even dodge type 2 diabetes as a result of significant weight loss.

4. Diabetes may be related to your back pain

A meta-analysis conducted earlier this year at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Bone and Joint Research found that people with diabetes have a 35 percent higher risk of experiencing low back pain, and a 24 percent higher risk of having neck pain compared to those without diabetes.

While no causal link was found between the two – the investigators say the findings could be accounted to the causal relationship between lifestyle (eg. diet, obesity and exercise) to both diabetes and back pain.

“Type 2 diabetes and low back pain both have a strong relationship with obesity and lack of physical activity, so a logical progression of this research might be to examine these factors in more detail. Our analysis adds to the evidence that weight control and physical activity play fundamental roles in health maintenance,” says Associate Professor Manuela Ferreira.

5. Analysing data to predict type 2 diabetes

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre (CMCRC) believe that previously-untapped medical records could be used to predict when a person is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. By analysing more than 4000 hospital admission records from patients with and without type 2 diabetes, the researchers produced a ‘comorbidity network’, mapping patient journeys and development of other conditions.

“It is well known that chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes do not occur in isolation, and have a shared set of causes common to many other diseases and disorders,” said study lead author Arif Khan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Complex Systems in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.

His team found that, over time, the prevalence of comorbidities in the group of diabetic patients was almost double that of the non-diabetic patients, indicating entirely different ways of disease progression. They hope the network can help healthcare providers to proactively identify patients at high risk of developing chronic disease.

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