Press Release

Diabetes expertise seeks to redress global health inequalities

Published on 22 September 2020

The University of Dundee is to bring its expertise in diabetes, precision medicine and machine learning to bear on a project aiming to improve the outcomes for people with diabetes in Malaysia.

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Portrait photo of Chim Lang

The University of Dundee is to bring its expertise in diabetes, precision medicine and machine learning to bear on a project aiming to improve the outcomes for people with diabetes in Malaysia.

Dundee is partnering with the Malaysia-based UKM Medical Molecular Biology Institute (UMBI) on the £500,000 PRIME project, which will be officially launched at a webinar on Wednesday 23 September.

The global epidemic of type 2 diabetes poses an enormous public health challenge in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), where three-quarters of those with the disease live. Malaysia has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world, with four million individuals – around 18.3% of the adult population – affected.

The majority of knowledge surrounding diabetes and its cardiovascular complications has been accumulated from studying white populations with Western European ancestry, despite the fact that diabetes in Europeans is very different to Asians.

Academics from Dundee will help to redress this balance by working with Professor Datuk Rahman Jamal’s team at UMBI. Professor Rahman is currently the principal investigator for The Malaysian Cohort, the biggest and most comprehensive population-based study ever carried out in Malaysia. This extensive data on non-communicable diseases will help researchers learn more about diabetes in the country.

For this collaboration, 5000 individuals with type 2 diabetes will be genotyped comprehensively. The team hope to identify genetic characteristics that enable the development of population-based screening to identify individuals at most risk of developing type 2 diabetes as well as genetic markers that could also be used to tailor treatment strategies for patients.

“The overarching aim of PRIME project is to build a high-performing partnership that will deliver precision medicine in terms of efficacy and safety for people with diabetes in Malaysia,” said Professor Chim Lang, co-lead of the Dundee tranche of the project. “By doing so, we can identify the processes that drive the onset of the disease and the cardiovascular complications in Malaysian populations to understand how best to manage diabetes there.

“Professor Rahman is a lead researcher in genetics and population and we will capitalise on his vast bank of DNA data and partner it with expertise in precision medicine in Dundee. This forms the nucleus of a partnership that brings together physicians, genetic epidemiologists, big data analysts, machine learning scientists and policy makers to have a real impact on people’s lives.”

PRIME will also use retinal scanning technology developed by the University’s Professor Emanuele Trucco, the other co-lead of the Dundee tranche, to better define a patient’s disease status and predict future risk of complications.

Retinal screening enables deep-level analysis of blood vessels of the eye. Measuring the level of damage caused by diabetes enables doctors to evaluate what is happening to blood vessels in other areas of the body affected by the disease. This is of particular relevance to the heart as the outlook for people with diabetes is significantly worsened by the presence of cardiovascular disease.

By automating the process, Professor Trucco’s VAMPIRE software enables scans to be analysed more speedily and more accurately.

“There is a lot of excitement around the potential for machine learning in medical research and treatment,” continued Professor Lang. “In this instance the small vessels of eye allow us to have a direct visualisation of the blood vessels of our body.

“As a cardiologist I am extremely interested in technology that allows us to learn more about the blood vessels, which are of the utmost importance when it comes to treating diabetes and attempting to prevent the cardiovascular complications which make it so deadly.”

Professor Rahman added, “The Malaysian Cohort project, which is similar to the UK Biobank in many aspects, is a gold mine for research in non-communicable diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Diabetes is a major problem in Malaysia with a rising prevalence and the rising economic burden related to treatment of the disease and its complications is of major concern to the government.

“The diversity of ethnicity in the Malaysian population will allow the analysis of gene-gene and gene-environment interaction and also to identify biomarkers relevant to the local population, as well as to do a large-scale comparative analysis with populations from other countries. This collaboration with a top university from the UK will also allow transfer of technology and expertise between the two teams.”

The new collaboration will leverage the knowledge generated by INSPIRED, a £7 million Dundee-led project that seeks to improve diabetes outcomes in India by working to better understand who gets diabetes, how it progresses, why some people respond better than others to treatments, and why some patients develop complications.

To do this, they need to study how genes influence susceptibility to type 2 diabetes in different populations, and the ethnic makeup of Malaysia (46% Malay, 33% Chinese, 16% Indian and 5% other) enables PRIME researchers to obtain information of potential use wherever these groups are found across the world.

PRIME is supported by the MRC Newton Ungku Omar Fund, an initiative that aims to develop science and innovation partnerships to promote the economic development and welfare of collaborating countries.

Enquiries

Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768

G.Hill@dundee.ac.uk

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