From the discovery of insulin in the 1920s, Canada has a long history of diabetes research, playing a leading role in the global push to better understand and treat people with diabetes.

“Canada has traditionally punched above its weight when it comes to diabetes research,” says Dr. Patrick MacDonald, Canada Research Chair in Islet Biology at the Alberta Diabetes Institute, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, at the University of Alberta. “There have been some remarkable breakthroughs in drugs over the last decade that do a much better job at lowering blood sugar.”

"While it’s possible a drug can be made to turn on the pathway, it will take some time."

Dr. MacDonald’s work is focused on type 2 diabetes, a disease of insulin resistance, which forces the pancreas to crank out more insulin. Over time, the pancreas is unable to keep up with the demand and stops working. “We’ve been able to identify some important pathways that act like a dimmer switch,” he says. “We can control how much insulin comes out when the switch is turned on or dimmed. We are looking at finding some tricks within the body, so the right amount of insulin can be generated.” 

While it’s possible a drug can be made to turn on the pathway, it will take some time. In the meantime, Dr. Macdonald and his team are working to learn how we can prevent the pathway from becoming blocked in the first place. “We need to understand how genetics and the environment impact the disease,” he adds. “With more research we may be able to determine the risk of someone developing diabetes and intervene before it’s too late.”

Diabetes is a disease for life

According to Dr. Bruce Verchere, Director of Diabetes Research at BC’s Child and Family Research Institute, there is a disturbing increase in the number of children with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, much of this  increase is the result of obesity in children. “It’s a disease for life, and if you get it young, you have that much more time for complications to arise,” he says. “Prevention is the best option, and we need better tools to predict the disease and prevent, or slow the onset of both forms.”

While research has shown that lifestyle intervention — diet and exercise — can delay the progression of the disease, Dr. Verchere states it is difficult for many people to practice and maintain. That’s why a lot of research is focused on disease prediction, so doctors would be able to better understand the early events going on in the pancreas, and intervene before the disease is detected.