Expert in diabetes research joins University

A leading academic in diabetes research has joined the growing team of scientists based at the University of Lincoln, UK, who are working to ultimately prevent the disease.

Dr Michael Christie has joined the School of Life Sciences at Lincoln to work with colleagues to improve the quick and easy identification of individuals at risk of diabetes and to develop treatments to prevent them developing disease.

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high because of the inability of the hormone insulin to control blood sugar. This is often the result of a defect in pancreatic beta cells, a type of cell in the pancreas whose primary function is to store and release insulin.

In England in 2010, there were approximately 3.1 million people aged 16 or over with diabetes (both diagnosed and undiagnosed). More than 400,000 people in the UK have Type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body doesn’t produce insulin because the immune system has destroyed the beta cells that make it. Patients with Type 1 diabetes, many of who are children, are dependent on multiple injections of insulin, and finger-prick glucose tests, every day to maintain normal blood sugar levels and stay alive.

Dr Christie’s main area of research focusses on Type 1 diabetes. His research group was the first to identify one of the components of beta cells that is targeted by the immune system in Type 1 diabetes and to demonstrate that antibodies to this and other proteins can be used to accurately predict the development of disease

Dr Christie said: “In the first few years of life, from birth to around 5 years of age an immune response is initiated against the beta cells, causing their destruction over a period of months to years, and ultimately leading to loss of insulin production. We can detect antibodies to proteins in beta cells and their appearance indicates that the individual is at high risk of developing diabetes. I have been trying to identify what components of the insulin secreting beta cells are targeted by these antibodies and how we can use this knowledge to predict and prevent development of the disease.

“There has been a 4-fold increase in Type 1 diabetes in the under-5’s over the past 25 years and the cost of treatment of these patients will become a huge burden on the NHS. This increase in diabetes in the young causes problems for the families of patients as they have to get used to regulating and medicating the disease in their children. We are in a very good position to identify those at risk of diabetes but what we need to do now is find a way to prevent the disease.”

Dr Christie brings funding from the charity Diabetes UK to develop and test a new approach to destroy or inactivate cells of the immune system involved in beta cell destruction in Type 1 diabetes that will block the disease process. The new therapy will initially be trialled using cells isolated from diabetic patients and in models of disease before progressing to clinical trials, potentially within the next five years.

On his appointment, Dr Christie said: “There are huge opportunities for developing my research interests here at the University of Lincoln. The investment, both in terms of facilities and in the student experience, is fantastic.”