Understanding and ultimately preventing renal damage in diabetes sufferers is a key aim for two new academics at the University of Lincoln, UK.

Professor Paul Squires and Dr Claire Hills, who both came from the University of Warwick, have joined the School of Life Sciences in the new multi-million pound state-of-the-art Joseph Banks Laboratories. Their joint research aims to better understand the sub-cellular mechanisms that regulate how people with diabetes can end up with diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease).

Almost one third of all patients with diabetes progressively develop diabetic nephropathy within 10-to-30 years of the onset of disease and this accounts for almost a quarter of those entering renal replacement programs in the UK. However, we still lack a basic understanding of this debilitating condition.

Professor Squires and Dr Hills, who have more than 20 years’ experience in diabetes research, are currently investigating how high glucose and an important down-stream pro-fibrotic cytokine called Transforming Growth Factor-beta (TGF-beta), cause renal damage as a result of this metabolic disease. Their research is supported by project and equipment grant support from Diabetes UK.

Dr Hills said: “Understanding the mechanism by which TGF-beta evokes its effects is essential in establishing novel therapeutic strategies for the prevention or arrest of the disease.”

In the UK more than three million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, and with another million unaware that they have the disease there is a need to identify future bio-markers and realistic targets for intervention, especially given that the large number of sufferers is predicted to double by 2025.

Professor Squires said: “The theme of our research concentrates on cell-to-cell coupling, cell-to-cell communication and investigating the multiple ways that cells talk to each other to improve function. We already know that the response of an intact tissue where cells communicate with one another is greater than the sum of its parts when in isolation and we want to understand how errors in this communication lead to disease progression. The results of our research could readily be transferred to other disorders and will provide tangible targets to combat many of the micro-vascular complications of the disease.”

Professor Squires and Dr Hills recently published a paper in the journal Molecular and Cellular Bioengineering which looks at how cell contact and communication breaks down in the pancreas in diabetes.

Using a high-resolution method called Atomic Force Microscopy they are able to listen to the conversations by which cells communicate and look closely at the proteins involved in how cells stick to one another. When they fail to stick together, this is an early marker of disease.

Another area being worked on by the duo is the damage the new ‘party drug’ ketamine does to the bladder. Supported by a Rosetrees Trust medical research grant, the project investigates how ketamine promotes tissue fibrosis and scarring in the bladder and kidney. Early work was recently published in PLOS ONE.

On his appointment at Lincoln, Professor Squires concluded: “The University of Lincoln has huge drive and aspirations in research and it is very exciting to be able to contribute to what can be achieved in the biomedical field. I am very keen to put something back into the community and have already invited the local Diabetes UK group to visit our laboratories. As an institution we are keen to develop that transitional link between science, clinicians and end users. The ethos of from bench to bedside is intrinsic to the University’s research philosophy.”