£6 million award to expand diabetes research excellence at Exeter

Diabetes research in Exeter began in 1987

A £6 million Government award will enable Exeter’s globally-renowned diabetes research to expand to the next level, enabling even more benefit to patient care.

The major investment is part of the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy. The award to the University of Exeter, working in partnership with the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, is designed to take areas of research which are excellent yet relatively small, and enable them to build to the next level. Across the UK, government is providing the biggest boost to research and development funding in UK history, as part of the ambition to raise the level of research and development funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Diabetes is one of the world’s greatest health challenges, affecting 400 million people and accounting for 10 per cent of NHS budget spend. From modest foundations and despite its small size, the Exeter team has built up to become a leading international research centre for research into diabetes.

This investment comes as part of the Expanding Excellence in England Fund supporting England’s world-leading universities to shape new innovations in our economy and provide the skills to support the highly skilled jobs of the future.

Already, the Exeter team has made discoveries that have transformed understanding and improved treatment and care across a range of areas in diabetes. They include:

  • Identifying 16 of the 22 single gene causes of diabetes and providing testing for patients from over 100 countries.
  • Showing that many babies with diabetes from birth could replace insulin injections with a simple tablet.
  • Identifying a common genetic variant that predisposes people to obesity.
  • Unravelling the genetics behind a link between low birth weight and type 2 diabetes.
  • Defying conventional thinking by showing that people with type 1 diabetes retain some insulin-producing cells.
  • Identifying that damage to small blood vessels and nerves is an early feature of diabetes
  • Developing a test to diagnose diabetes far more effectively
  • Identifying new ways to predict which babies will go on to develop type 1 diabetes in later life

Professor Andrew Hattersley, who led the application, “It is a great honour that the excellence of the diabetes research in Exeter has been recognised in this national completion. Receiving this funding which allow us to make a giant step forward in our ability to research into the causes, complications and treatment of diabetes. We’re now looking for the very best academics across a wide range of disciplines to join us for our next exciting phase. This funding will allow us to recruit at all levels: established experts, promising young researchers and PhD Students. “

Diabetes research in Exeter began in 1987, when Professor John Tooke with Professor Angela Shore established a diabetes research programme. They brought world class research to Exeter focussed on how diabetes affects the small blood vessels resulting in kidney and eye disease.

In 1995, Professors Sian Ellard and Andrew Hattersley joined the team, bringing expertise in diagnosis and the genetics of diabetes. Since those early days, a programme of high calibre recruitment combined with outstanding training and support of early career researchers has developed a team of international renown. World leaders include Professor Tim Frayling’s analysis of genetic predisposition and Professor Noel Morgan and Sarah Richardson’s research on the cause of Type 1 diabetes. The team is mainly situated in the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust grounds; This embedding in the NHS has made it easy for their work to move directly to clinical care, revolutionising clinical practice across a range of diabetes-related fields.

Since its inception, the team has raised £80 million in funding from sources including Diabetes UK, JDRF, the Medical Research Council the EU and NIHR, as well as from industry and philanthropic donors. In the last ten years, the team has published 1,500 academic papers with high impact in the global research community. The team has been recognised with an impressive string of international accolades, including 18 awards that recognise leading early career researchers in the UK and Europe.

As a result of the new funding, recruitment is already underway for outstanding researchers who will further bolster the team’s world-renowned expertise in new approaches to investigating diabetes. The money will also help recruit a number of PhD studentships to accelerate research in the field.

Professor Angela Shore, Vice-Dean Research at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “This award recognises the already outstanding research we have here at Exeter, which is having real, tangible benefits for the 415 million people estimated to be living with diabetes worldwide. Exeter is a really exciting place to be, where our culture of collaboration and academic freedom combines with excellent relations with patient networks and the NHS. We’re really excited that this funding will help us develop our research by recruiting high-calibre staff and investing in genomic and imaging equipment.”

Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over. This programme led by the University of Exeter will boost diabetes research by incorporating artificial intelligence in diagnosis and improving treatment.

“The Expanding Excellence in England Fund will support projects throughout England to master new and developing areas of research and industry.

“Made possible through our record research and development spend delivered by our modern Industrial Strategy, the investment will support researchers to develop solutions and opportunities for UK researchers and businesses.”

Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice Chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: “I’m thrilled at this award and the possibilities it presents for our research, and more importantly, for the benefits that will bring to preventing, diagnosing and treating diabetes. Congratulations to everyone involved in this bid.”

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