University of Exeter Medical School - Professor Lorna Harries & Dr Sarah Richardson
Using newly available human pancreatic beta cell lines in vitro for the very first time, the research will discover novel targets for drug development to help those suffering from diabetes. An estimated 100,000 animals are used annually worldwide as well as countless rat and mice cell lines, for diabetes research.

Diabetes is a common life-long health condition, where the amount of glucose in a patient’s blood is too high as the pancreas is unable to produce adequate insulin to aid glucose entry into the body’s cells. This causes glucose to build up in the blood, giving rise to the common symptoms of diabetes, such as lethargy, thirst, repeated infections and visual impairment. 

There are an astounding 3.3 million people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK and an estimated 590,000 people who have the condition, but remain unaware. The cost of diabetes to the NHS is over £1.5 million an hour, which equates to 10% of the entire NHS budget for England and Wales. This means that over £25,000 is being spent on diabetes every minute.

The prevalence of diabetes is estimated to rise further by 2025, and it is now being described as a truly global epidemic, yet there remains no cure.

The development of a cure relies upon building a foundation of new knowledge to better understand the mechanisms underlying the condition. This is exactly what our new grant holder Professor Lorna Harries, and her team at the University of Exeter Medical School are working towards.

The aim of their research is to understand the mechanisms that cause particular cells of the pancreas, beta cells, to lose their ability to produce insulin in those suffering from diabetes. New research suggests that part of the reason may be because these cells are, surprisingly, changing into other types of cells, contrary to previous belief that the cells were simply dying. This PhD project is designed to assess what causes this phenomenon and why the beta cells alter their identity in this way.

Research in this field relies heavily on animal experimentation at present; an estimated 100,000 animals are used annually worldwide. In addition, cell lines derived from rats or mice are most commonly used, as suitable human beta cell lines had not until recently been successfully generated.  However, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are arranged quite differently in humans compared to animals, therefore the mechanisms behind this process may differ between species, and data generated using animals and their cell lines may not be relevant in man.

In this project, the group will use the newly available human beta cell lines in vitro for the very first time, which grow in the absence of any animal-derived biomaterials. This research will hopefully impact on the lives of people living with diabetes by unravelling novel targets for drug development and advance the technology preserving and transplanting pancreatic insulin-producing cells.