Working to better understand the causes of diabetes

Dr. Alia Shatanawi from Jordan is yet another inspiring young woman leaving her mark on the scientific world. Her research is focused on diabetes, which affects almost 10% of the global population and nearly 20% of the population in her home country. As we all know, there are different types of diabetes, but how do they differ? What are the causes of this disease? And what measures can we take to prevent, or lower, the likelihood of developing diabetes? Dr. Shatanawi takes the time to answer these questions and more!

Your current research is focused on diabetes, which affects some 347 million people worldwide. Does this disease affect both men and women equally? Or is one sex more susceptible than the other?


This is a very important question. Interestingly, the prevalence of this condition has changed over time. In the first half of the last century the prevalence of type 2 diabetes was higher among women than among men. Now, more men than women are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, due to a more sedentary lifestyle among men, resulting in increased obesity, which is an important risk factor for the development of diabetes.


Recent data have also shown that men develop diabetes at a lower degree of obesity than women, which supports the idea that men and women’s bodies develop type 2 diabetes differently. Many factors can play a role in these variations, such as: differences in body fat distribution, insulin resistance, sex hormones, and blood glucose levels. On the other hand, I would like to mention that type 1 diabetes occurs at about the same rate in men and women.


How does one become diabetic? Is it genetic? Is it related to your lifestyle: i.e. what you eat and your exercise habits? Or other causes?


The exact causes of both types of diabetes are still not known. But, for both types, genetic factors definitely play a role. Some people are just born more likely to develop diabetes than others. However, unlike some traits, diabetes does not seem to be inherited in a simple pattern.


Although type 1 and type 2 diabetes have different causes, two factors are prevalent in both. First you inherit a predisposition to the disease, and then something in your environment triggers it. Genes alone are not enough. With type 1 diabetes, those environmental triggers are unknown. One interesting example of this is identical twins. Identical twins have identical genes, right? However, when one twin has type 1 diabetes, the other twin gets the disease at most only 50% of the time.


With type 2 diabetes, the exact cause is also unknown, but it is clear that excess weight can trigger the disease. Lifestyle choices, like what you eat and your exercise habits, can influence the development of this disease. 


Can diabetes be passed on from a mother to her baby?


If a pregnant woman has diabetes or gestational diabetes (a type that occurs during pregnancy) this can affect her baby. This happens when her blood has too much sugar in it, and this sugar passes through the womb to the unborn baby. Exposure to excess sugar can cause the baby to grow larger than normal, which can lead to problems during delivery and can also have some long-term effects on the child's health. Unfortunately, this means that the child will have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes later on in life.


Deaths from this disease are projected to rise by more than 50% in the next 10 years. What are the causes of these deaths and why are they projected to increase at such an alarming rate?


Deaths from diabetes most commonly occur due to cardiovascular complications.


In diabetes, high levels of sugar in our body lead to a dysfunction of blood vessels and the organs do not receive a sufficient amount of blood. This can result in serious consequences such as kidney failure, heart attacks and strokes, among others.


We know that complications from diabetes are far less common and less severe in people who have well-controlled blood sugar levels. Although there have been advances in the development of new drugs to control high glucose levels, conventional and recently proposed therapies are still not effective enough, which results in this dramatic estimated increase over the next 10 years.


Hopefully, with advances in research and innovation, we can combat this problem and lower the likelihood of deaths from diabetes in the next 10 years.


Are there any means of prevention that the public can take? And how is the medical community (including yourself!) working to treat this disease?


Studies show that it is possible to delay or prevent this type of diabetes by exercising and losing weight. Physical inactivity and obesity are strongly associated with the development of type 2 diabetes. People who are genetically susceptible to type 2 diabetes are more vulnerable when these risk factors are present.


An imbalance between caloric intake and physical activity can lead to obesity, which causes insulin resistance and is common in people with type 2 diabetes. Central obesity, in which a person has excess abdominal fat, is a major risk factor not only for type 2 diabetes, but also for cardiovascular disease. This excess “belly fat” produces hormones and other substances that can cause harmful, chronic effects in the body such as damage to blood vessels.


I am working to better understand the causes of diabetes by identifying new targets for preventing vessel dysfunction in diabetes. These targets can then be used as both markers of the progression of the disease and also targets for new drug therapy for these complications.


Dr. Alia Shatanawi received a UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowship in 2014. 

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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