Abu Dhabi research project aims to find out why diabetes is so prevalent in Emiratis

A doctor is being recruited to begin a three-year research project at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre to discover what factors, other that lifestyle factors, are at play with Emiratis' high rate of diabetes.

Dr Nader Lessan, consultant endocrinologist with ICLDC, says diabetes is in part independent of lifestyle and other factors behind obesity in the UAE. Courtesy Imperial College London Diabetes Centre
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Scientists are stepping up efforts to discover why a high number of Emiratis suffer from diabetes.

A doctor is being recruited to begin a three-year research project and join existing researchers at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) in Abu Dhabi, with further researchers – including Emiratis – to be brought on board. They are also aiming to identify individuals at risk so they can receive the appropriate treatment.

“There’s a high level of obesity and, beyond that, the level of diabetes in the UAE is very high and we don’t really understand why that is,” said Dr Kevin Murphy, a reader in endocrinology at Imperial College London helping to coordinate the work.

“The overarching theme of the project is: ‘Can we understand the causes of diabetes and the best way of treating it?’”

According to Dr Nader Lessan, an ICLDC consultant endocrinologist, the “diabetes epidemic” in the UAE is “at least in part independent of the lifestyle and other factors driving the obesity epidemic”.

The new researcher, who will work towards a PhD, will continue work already begun that involves identifying biological characteristics, or “biomarkers”, that predict who, among those who are diabetic, is more likely to develop complications such as heart disease, or kidney or eye problems.

Also supervising the work will be Dr Amir Sam, a senior lecturer and consultant endocrinologist at Imperial College London. In a diabetes clinic there might be two patients of the same weight, he said, yet one will often develop more complications than the other.

“It would be very useful to have a test that helps to predict who is going to get these complications, so you can target treatments,” Dr Sam said.

The amount of fat in the liver is one variable thought to help predict who will face problems caused by diabetes. The team is developing a simple blood test for the amount of fat in the liver. This would be many times cheaper than the scans currently used.

Initial results of this research have recently been published and further data on the utility of this test in patients with diabetes will be presented at a conference in the United States next year, but Dr Sam said it still needed to be tested on a larger number of patients.

The work in Abu Dhabi will also focus on what genetic factors correlate with an increased risk of diabetes, which might in turn help uncover why the rate of the condition is high among Emiratis. The new doctorate student will be the second to work at the ICLDC, which opened in 2006. About 35 doctors and scientists from around the world applied for the position.

“We expect further doctorate positions to be offered by Imperial College London and the ICLDC over the next few months. Two of these are expected to be filled by Emirati candidates,” Dr Lessan said.

He said that future work would focus on specific patient groups, including those “at the extreme of obesity”. As the research effort grows, the number of patients involved is likely to increase by several hundred each year and could ultimately reach 2,000, more than 90 per cent of them expected to be Emirati. Most will have just a single blood test but some may undergo additional assessments.

“When they come back we can take additional samples. One of the things that is helpful is you can see how things change,” Dr Murphy said.

Assessments of individuals over time should indicate whether the biomarkers being looked at can predict problems before they develop.

Using biomarkers can lead to improvements in treatment more quickly than would be the case if a drug was being developed.

A reliable biomarker could take about five years to introduce, while drugs typically take 10 to 20 years to develop.

If a patient’s biomarkers indicate he or she is less at risk of developing problems, that individual might not, for example, need to be assessed for another year. If it suggests they are more vulnerable, their doctor might recommend more regular checks.