Research by Dr Claire Hills, from the School of Life Sciences, aims to better understand the sub-cellular mechanisms that regulate how people with diabetes can end up with diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease).

Dr Hills has been awarded an £18,000 grant from the Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation (DRWF) to help identify a future therapeutic target for alleviating renal fibrosis in diabetes.

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 how this debilitating condition develops.

Dr Hills said: “In the diabetic kidney, a build-up of fibrotic material, in part, brings about both structural and functional damage culminating in loss of both cell integrity and function. Damage occurs when cells fail to respond as they should, and thus start behaving more characteristic of cells of another tissue type. In doing so, cells lose their ability to synchronise their activity with neighbouring cells. They become less able to directly adhere to surrounding cells and to the extracellular matrix; a skeleton, which surrounds and supports the cell. Loss of these interactions results in failure of transmission of cell survival signals. However, basic knowledge on how matrix reorganisation impacts on kidney function in diabetes is severely lacking.”

The study entitled “Does reorganisation of the extracellular matrix promote glucose induced fibrosis in diabetic nephropathy” will use healthy and diseased cells to establish how high glucose and an important down-stream pro-fibrotic cytokine called Transforming Growth Factor-beta (TGF-beta), both regulate and disrupt cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions.

Changes observed in response to glucose-evoked TGF-β1 will help identify target areas for further research and may have a tangible effect on directing pharmaceutical research and development and for the future treatment of diabetic nephropathy within a 10 to 15 year time frame.