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New Westmead Millennium Institute Research Centre targets Type 2 diabetes epidemic

09/10/2014
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The Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research on 9 October announced the establishment of a new centre targeting Australia's fastest-growing chronic health conditions - type 2 diabetes and obesity.The Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research is part of WMI's new $110 million research building, which was officially opened on 9 October by the prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott, and the premier of New South Wales, Mr Mike Baird.The CDOR complements existing research into type 1 diabetes by WMI's Centre for Transplant and Renal Research, making the institute one of the foremost diabetes research centres in Australia.The establishment of CDOR increases to 11 the number of research centres housed within WMI, confirming it as one of Australia's most trans-disciplinary medical research institutes - its scientific investigation spanning infectious and immune diseases; cancer and leukemia; liver and metabolic diseases; eye and brain-related disorders and heart and respiratory diseases.

Speaking at the official opening, WMI's executive director, Professor Tony Cunningham said the new diabetes research team is ideally positioned to aid the national fight against type 2 diabetes.

"Based in Western Sydney, WMI's researchers are right in the middle of the type 2 diabetes epidemic and we have the ability to translate discoveries into potential therapies for diabetes patients at Westmead Hospital next door," Prof Cunningham said.

Professor Jenny Gunton, who heads up the CDOR at WMI and is also the chair of medicine at Westmead Hospital, said some of her team are investigating ways to increase beige fat in diabetes patients.

Beige fat is a 'good fat' which burns rather than stores energy, making hosts thinner.

"After inherited risk, we know that obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are the major risk factors for type 2 diabetes. This research may find ways to burn calories and increase fitness and, as more than 50 per cent of Australians are overweight, it's an important area of investigation for the nation's health and wellbeing," Prof Gunton said.

"Our study will progress to a clinical trial of people with type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese, hopefully late this year at Westmead Hospital," she said.

WMI and Westmead Hospital have a long history with diabetes research, leading to the establishment of Australia's first successful clinical pancreatic islet cell transplant program.

A team led by the director of the CTRR, clinical professor Philip O'Connell, used the technique to treat patients with a type 1 diabetes and severe low blood glucose levels, called hypoglycaemia unawareness.

Infusing the patients with pancreatic islet cells from donor organs restored normal blood glucose levels without the need for insulin injections, thus effectively curing type 1 diabetes in many cases.

A patient in the trial, Ms Ruth Cummock, has not needed insulin injections for nearly six years, and says the medical breakthrough has had a hugely positive impact on her quality of life.

"Without the transplants I probably would be totally blind today and if I'd had a really bad episode of hypoglycaemia unawareness, I might not be alive."

Clinical professor Philip O'Connell says not only is his team working on continual incremental improvements on current islet transplant treatments, they are working on the next steps in finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.

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His current research is looking at genetically modifying pig insulin-producing cells to trick the immune system into thinking they are human and hence avoiding rejection.

Prof Cunningham says translational - or 'bench to bedside' - research successes such as the pancreatic islet program will be enhanced by WMI's new, state-of-the-art, research facilities co-located between the Westmead and Childrens' hospitals.

"This level of collaboration and translation is the key to fast-tracking medical research into clinical trials and ultimately effective treatments for patients - and it happens across the whole spectrum of medical disciplines," Prof Cunningham said.

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