As more people tip the scales as overweight and obese, more of us could develop type 2 diabetes. Will it be become a massive public health problem or is a ‘cure’ just around the corner?
According to Diabetes UK, diabetes now affects 3.8 million people in the UK and an estimated 850,000 of these don’t even know they have the condition.
The charity estimates as many as seven million people are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, if current trends continue, around five million people may have the condition by 2025.
What is causing an increase in diabetes?
Most of the increase is due to a sharp increase in the number of people developing type 2 diabetes – mainly due to being overweight and having a large waist measurement.
In England, for instance, according to the NHS, 24 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women were classed as obese in 2011. As Britons get fatter they become more likely to develop insulin resistance and diabetes. Other risk factors are being South Asian and over 40.
New treatments for type 1 diabetes
There are a number of scientific breakthroughs on the horizon that could transform the way type 1 diabetes is treated in the UK.
- A vaccine for diabetes: A vaccine for type 1 diabetes that could transform the lives of those at high risk of the condition could be a reality within the next 20 years, according to Dr Alasdair Rankin, Diabetes UK’s Director of Research. This would represent the biggest single breakthrough in diabetes research since insulin was first successfully used to treat type 1 diabetes 91 years ago.
Dr Rankin said: ‘We tend to think of type 1 diabetes as unavoidable but there is a huge sense of excitement in the research community that the work being done today is building towards a future where type 1 diabetes can be stopped in its tracks.
“This is not, of course, going to happen overnight. It is likely that the first vaccines we see will allow people to live longer before they develop type 1 diabetes, rather than preventing it entirely. But we know that if people who do develop type 1 diabetes are treated early with a vaccine, then it could provide some benefits that make their condition easier to manage and improve their health in the long term.”
- Artificial pancreas treatments at home: Diabetes UK is funding research at the University of Cambridge testing the use of an artificial pancreas at home. These are “closed loop” systems that monitor blood glucose levels and use this information to adjust the amount of insulin being administered by an insulin pump and so ensure the person is always getting the right amount. Five adults with type 1 diabetes are already using the devices in their homes without medical supervision as part of a trial.
Dr Rankin said: “It is still early days and even if this trial shows that the artificial pancreas can be used safely and effectively in people’s homes, there will need to be bigger trials before it can be offered as a routine treatment. But I think we are talking years rather than decades before this becomes a reality.”
New treatments for type 2 diabetes
With type 2 diabetes increasing among the population, what potential new treatments could soon be available to help manage the condition?
- New injection to control blood sugar: A new once a day injectable treatment was approved by the European Medicines Agency in 2013. According to recent reports in the Herald Scotland, Lyxumia is a treatment for adults with type 2 diabetes and is taken in combination with other glucose controlling drugs, together with diet and exercise, where these alone have not controlled adequate glycaemic control.
- Gene therapy: New research by Dr Alexey Pshezhetsky of the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center in Canada, published this year has discovered insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes is caused partly by a lack of a protein – a breakthrough that may help develop a treatment to prevent the disease. The protein, Neu1, turns the absorption of sugar "on" or "off" in body cells, by regulating the amount of sialic acid on the surface of cells. Scientists are now trying to find a way to restore Neu1 levels and function in diabetes to force the insulin receptor to do its job of absorbing blood sugar properly.