7 November 2002
Going blind is one of the most feared side-effects of being a diabetic.
Up to 10 per cent of people with diabetes have eye disease that needs treatment, and it’s the most common culprit of sight loss in working adults.
The exact cause of the illness remains uncertain, which is why leading medical charity, Action Research, has launched a new study worth more than £100,000 to find some answers.
Revealed to coincide with World Diabetes Day (Thursday November 14th), the new three-year research study has been awarded by Action Research, and kindly funded by a medical research donation by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The project aims to shed new light on the eye disease, diabetic retinopathy.
Professor Alan Stitt of Queen’s University of Belfast is leading the study. He says:‘Developing diabetes can be a life-changing experience, and aside from finding a lasting cure, any efforts to reduce or prevent some of the complications that are associated with the condition are essential for thousands of people affected.
‘The Action Research study is designed to unlock some of the mysteries associated with diabetes and the devastating visual problems it can cause.’
There are known to be as many as 1.4 million people diagnosed with diabetes, and another estimated one million who don’t know they have it. Diabetics have difficulty processing the sugars they eat, so they struggle on a daily basis to maintain a normal amount of glucose in their blood. It is proven that high glucose levels can lead to numerous complications, including retinal damage.
This is a condition that affects the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye called the retina, where tiny blood vessels can become progressively damaged and unable to transport blood properly. It can lead to lasting difficulties and blindness if not treated.
Although diabetic retinopathy can be clinically treated, for example with aggressive laser treatment in the later stages, it is still a problematic eye disease to control. The exact molecular cause remains uncertain, and without this knowledge it is hard to design appropriate therapies to prevent the condition.
To help them in their quest, researchers from Queen’s University of Belfast are looking at the way the retina uses oxygen.
In patients with diabetic retinopathy, the cells of the retina are often ‘hungry’ for oxygen but can’t get enough to maintain normal function. This is because the retina has lost some of the all-important blood vessels that carry a healthy supply of oxygen, and the retina struggles to cope. This low level of oxygen is known as ‘retinal hypoxia’.
If the researchers can further improve their understanding of this process, they may eventually be able to intervene with novel drugs that regulate oxygen demand. This in turn could halt the development of the disease.
Professor Stitt, who is leading the study based at the Department of Ophthalmology, at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital says: ‘In essence, this is what the Action Research project is about. We believe that the oxygen demands of the retina may actually contribute to diabetic retinopathy. ‘Research in this area is complicated and long-term. But we are taking small steps towards uncovering complex cellular and molecular processes that may lead to new treatment strategies. These could halt, or even reverse, the progression of these devastating eye diseases. I’m sure you’d agree that preventing loss of sight is so much better than treating it.’
Action Research is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. Its Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2.5m in 2002 for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk
Fact-File: *There are two main types of diabetes: In type 1 regular insulin injections are required for sufferers to survive. But the majority of diabetes occurs in type 2 and can be controlled through diet and tablets, although insulin may be required.
*There are a number of long term complications associated with diabetes, including damage to the retina, kidney and peripheral nerves, high blood pressure and narrowing of the major arteries.
*Sir George Alberti, President of the International Diabetes Federation, dubbed it the “AIDs epidemic of the 21st Century”.
*Action Research has funded four projects over the last five years directly investigating the condition. This represents a commitment of more than a third of a million pounds.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is one of the world's leading pharmaceutical and healthcare companies and is committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. GSK has a continuing programme of charitable activities in the UK, which places special emphasis on scientific education and medical research. GSK also seeks to fund initiatives for improving healthcare and supports a variety of projects in the visual and performing arts, as well as the environment.
World Diabetes Day was initiated by the Brussels-based International Diabetes Federation (IDF), and is designed to raise global awareness and understanding of diabetes.