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Researchers Find Important Cellular Clue that Could Lead to Preventive Treatments for Type 2 Diabetes

CHEO researchers discover a mechanism that keeps blood sugar levels low in people with pre-diabetes and obesity. This important finding could lead to treatments that prevent Type 2 diabetes – good for patients in an era where diabetes rates are spiking; good for the health care system as it could translate into massive savings.

Scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute have found a cellular pathway that keeps blood sugar levels low in people with pre-diabetes and obesity. This new knowledge, stemming from the work of Canada Research Chair and Senior Scientist Dr. Robert Screaton, could lead to treatments that prevent those with pre-diabetes from developing Type 2 diabetes, a life-long disease that’s on the rise.

More specifically, this research finding could save or prolong lives, improve the quality of life of would-be patients and save health care dollars ‒ possibly in the billions. Screaton, also Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, told the Ottawa Citizen: “We think it is a pretty big deal.”

The results of this research were published in the esteemed journal Nature Cell Biology (March 2014).

Dr. Robert Screaton cropped 2
Dr. Robert Screaton, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario

Diabetes in Canada is increasing at an accelerating rate: From 1998/1999 to 2008/2009, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes (both Types 1 and 2) among Canadians increased by 70%, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Today, there are an estimated two million Canadians with diabetes; by 2020, it is estimated that more than four million Canadians will have diabetes.

The greatest relative increase in prevalence was seen in the 35 to 39 and 40 to 44 year age groups [likely with Type 2], where the proportion doubled. It is probable that this increase in younger age groups is a consequence of increasing rates of overweight and obesity, since it is estimated that over 50% of Type 2 diabetes could be prevented or delayed with healthier eating and increased physical activity, according to a report co-produced by the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA), “Canada at the Tipping Point.”

Diabetes cost the Canadian health system and the economy more than $11 billion in 2010, according to the CDA report, while PHAC estimates that annual per capita health care costs are three to four times greater in a population with diabetes compared to a population without the disease.

The CDA suggests that even a modest reduction in diabetes prevalence would have a significant financial impact: A 2% reduction in prevalence rates would have a 9% reduction in direct health care costs.

Research Focuses Making Pancreas Better at Secreting Insulin

No doubt driven by the soaring rates of diabetes, Screaton’s research team focused on ways to make beta cells in the pancreas more effective and better at secreting insulin ‒ a hormone that regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, and promotes the absorption of glucose after a meal to be able to store food energy for future use. The inability of islet beta cells to produce enough insulin leads to diabetes.

In mice, this research showed that some obese animals were able to compensate for high blood sugar levels by turning up levels of the protein SIK2 in their beta cells. It also found that SIK2 works with another protein, PJA2. Basically, mice with diabetes lacked the ability to turn up production of the protein SIK2 and could not compensate for high blood sugar levels.

Male pancreas anatomy  Print
Left: The pancreas. Right: Islets within the pancreas contain beta cells, which make insulin and release it into the blood. Source of right image:

“We were very excited when we found obese animals had three times the amount of SIK2 in their beta cells, meaning they were working harder to compensate for high blood sugar by turning up SIK2,” Screaton explains.

With this new knowledge, the researchers gained a better understanding of the interconnection between SIK2 and PJA2, or the pathways between the two, and how this effects insulin secretion. From here, they hope to try and improve beta cell functionality, thereby preventing, delaying and/or treating Type 2 diabetes.

This research included partnerships with Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, the University of Connecticut and Harvard University. It was funded by the CDA and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

To read CHEO’s press release on this research, go here: To read the article in Nature Cell Biology, go here: To find facts and statistics on diabetes in Canada from PHAC, go here: To read the report co-produced by CDA, “Canada at the Tipping Point,” go here: