The man who wants to conquer diabetes

“Just a few decades ago we were slim and fit, now we are fat and feeble. Our genes have not kept up with the change,” says Leif Groop, a FiDiPro professor and one of the world’s best-known diabetes researchers.

Leif Groop

Type 2 diabetes is the world’s fastest growing disease, most notably in Asia and the Far East. It currently afflicts around 350 million people, a figure estimated to rise to over 500 million by 2030.

“This incredible increase is caused by the rapid change in our lifestyle: we used to be slim and active, but of late have become overweight and stationary,” explains Professor Leif Groop.” Since our genes have not kept up with the pace of change, our system is unable to adapt.”

Not enough insulin

The main cause of type 2 diabetes is the pancreas not producing as much insulin as the body needs. As body weight increases so does the need for insulin. “Pregnancy, for example, triples the need for insulin. However, pregnancy-related weight gain is nothing new to our genes so the pancreas is usually able to adapt and increase its insulin production. If this does not take place, the result is known as gestational diabetes,” Groop describes.

The hot topic in diabetes research is what makes the pancreas escalate insulin production.

“Over 50 forms of genes linked to the emergence of type 2 diabetes have been identified to date. Most of them are expressly related to the insulin production of the pancreas,” says Groop. “However, the key element has not been found.”

Lifestyle and family history

Although type 2 diabetes is often characterised as a lifestyle disease, our genetic makeup plays a significant role in its emergence. “It is possible – though not easy – to acquire the disease from poor lifestyle choices alone, but hereditary predisposition is nearly always involved in some way,” Groop explains. “If either parent is type 2 diabetic, a child has a 40% higher risk of getting the disease than one whose parents do not have diabetes.”

Obesity contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes, but the risk rises three- or fourfold if the disease is found in the family.

Major progress has been made in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, but the disease remains a serious condition: it can be neither cured nor stopped from progressing. Many of those affected develop a severe eye-condition, and 20–30% suffer from kidney disorders. An elevated risk of heart attack is also associated with the disease.

Towards personalised medicine

“We need a drug that works the same way as pregnancy does, that is, one that accelerates the activities of insulin-producing cells. We must find the key factor in the process before we can talk about a breakthrough in type 2 diabetes treatment,” says Groop.

But even before such a breakthrough, treatment methods can be improved by fine-tuning diagnostics. “Diagnoses and monitoring are based on the measurement of blood glucose levels. The introduction of other biogenetic markers improves the accuracy of diagnoses and helps determine the treatment response and risks of side effects, enabling treatment to be tailored individually. In other words, the treatment of this disease is also trending towards personalised medicine,” Groop points out.

Professor Leif Groop’s appointment as a FiDiPro professor at the University of Helsinki strengthens cooperation between the Lund University Diabetes Centre, led by Groop, and the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM).

“The Lund University Diabetes Centre is one of the world’s best in its field, while FIMM excels in genetic research,” says Groop. “The cooperation is fruitful.”

Leif Groop, a FiDiPro professor at the University of Helsinki and head of the Lund University Diabetes Centre, received the highly recognised Anders Jahre science award in 2012.

Research Database TUHAT: Leif Groop »»

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Text: Päivi Lehtinen
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro
Translation: Language Services, University of Helsinki
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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