Govt's diabetes research grants 'could' lead to cure

30 July, 2014

Research grants recently awarded by the NSW government to 14 researchers offer a glimmer of hope to the more than 1.5 million Australians who suffer from diabetes.

NSW Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research Jillian Skinner awarded 14 researchers with new Diabetes Australia grants at an event on Tuesday (29 July) in the NSW Parliament House.

Forty-six research projects were granted funding nationally for 2014 totalling $3.5 million. The Diabetes Australia Research Program has provided over $20m in research funding coming from charitable and philanthropic donors across Australia over past seven years.

Skinner says that research into finding a cure for diabetes and preventing diabetes and its complications is crucial.

Despite the large percentage of the population who have to cope with the debilitating condition – which can cause heart attacks, strokes, blindness, amputations and kidney failure – there is still no cure for type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

New national strategy

Skinner said the federal government has shown commitment to reducing the impact of diabetes by developing a new national strategy, led by an expert advisory group that is co-chaired by Diabetes Australia President, Judi Moylan.

"Research to create a future without diabetes and its complications is essential," Moylan said.

"It has been more than 70 years since lifesaving insulin was discovered, however we still don't know the actual causes of type 1 or type 2 diabetes nor how diabetes causes serious health complications and how to prevent it.

"Last year the National Health and Medical Research Council provided $44 million for diabetes research but this was dwarfed by $197 million for cancer and cardiovascular research. This is despite diabetes being the fastest growing epidemic and a major cause of hospitalisations, cost and lost productivity."

Skinner said: "The National Diabetes Strategy will strengthen Australia's response to the key areas of prevention and the primary health care sector, and will assist in identifying ways that will curb the impact of the condition through early diagnosis and treatment."

Non-invasive alternative therapy

One such therapy which has been successfully improving the quality of life for type 2 diabetics who are not properly controlled with medical or lifestyle intervention involves a device called the EndoBarrier.

Non-evasive and reversible, the device is inserted via a tube through the patient's mouth, and then secured just below the stomach and into the start of the intestine. It is then unfurled as a plastic tube into the small bowel. By having the plastic tubing within the duodenum, the EndoBarrier excludes food from that part of the small intestine, improving diabetic control rapidly.

The therapy has been in use for nearly two years in Australia, and according to Dr Harry Frydenberg, laparoscopic and general surgeon at Epworth Centre in Melbourne, solid results are being seen in patients.

"We've had some good weight losses – some have lost up to 32kgs within a year, which is very good. The average is between 12-20," he said.

A patient of his, Terry Crews, said the therapy had given him a "second chance at life". Like millions of Australians hindered by type 2 diabetes, Crews was desperate to find a way to improve his lifestyle.

"I'd tried a number of methods to reduce my weight, none of which helped. I ended up being bedridden – my knees were gone, my hips were gone. Everything was sort of failing. I needed assistance for everyday activities like going to the toilet and putting my socks on," he said.

Having done his own research, Crews was well aware of the "dramatic side effects" associated with other forms of treatment.

"Having found EndoBarrier, which was non-invasive and easily reversible, it became a pretty simple decision," he said.

Ongoing research

Prominent researcher Dr Paul Lee from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research is researching whether increasing or activating brown fat can help prevent or treat type 2 diabetes.

"Understanding how brown fat utilises energy, particularly sugar, may help us devise ways to improve energy balance in the body through brown fat," Dr Lee said.

"Our research will look at whether diet, exercise or medications for diabetes work through brown fat, or whether brown fat may be a completely new target exploitable in therapeutic development."

Diabetes Australia CEO Prof Greg Johnson said that the generosity of Australians has made it possible support vital diabetes research.

He said: "We hope more Australians, more companies and more philanthropists will join with us to support targeted and important diabetes research to help create a future where Australians do not face the threat of diabetes or its complications."

How EndoBarrier is put in place