She leads the fight against obesity-related diabetes
Name: Helena Edlund
Helena Edlund leads the fight against obesity-related diabetes, one of the world’s fastest growing health problems.
For more than 15 years, Helena Edlund has studied the pancreas, the hand-sized gland behind the stomach that can hide the answer to how a global health epidemic will be able to be stopped.
“The U.S. population is eating itself to death. Only one third maintain a normal weight, 20-30% have a fatty liver and there are 12- year-olds with cirrhosis of the liver due to obesity. Today’s Americans are the first generation that is forecast to have a shorter life expectancy than previous generations,” says Professor Helena Edlund.
This American pattern is now spreading around the world. By studying the development of the pancreas and the signal transmissions between and within cells, Helena hopes to be able to contribute to the molecular understanding and thus hopefully treatment of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Focus lies on the insulin-producing beta cells and a fatty acid responsive receptor, a part of the cell that forwards signals, within the beta cells.
Helena Edlund, who is one of the world-leading embryologists, showed upon an important link between obesity and diabetes. A few years ago she, together with her research group at Umeå Centre for Molecular Medicine (UCMM), made an international recognized breakthrough with regard to the understanding of how fat causes increased levels of insulin, sugar and blood lipids, which in turn can lead to diseases such as type-2 diabetes and fatty liver and complications such as cardiovascular diseases and chronic liver disease.
“The explanation is that fat, in the form of fatty acids, amplifies the secretion of insulin – resulting in a turbo effect. We proved that fatty acids stimulate insulin secretion via the receptor GPR40 and that if one develops obesity but lacks the GPR40 receptor, one is protected against diabetes and other related diseases such as fatty liver” explains Helena.
By blocking the receptor, one could theoretically protect against the development of diabetes and other complications.
“However, we do not know if this helps if the person already has diabetes. It may be most effective if it is done at an early stage, which is difficult since diabetes is most often not discovered until it is fully developed. For this we need to develop new test and it is important to remember that the best way of preventing the development of obesity-related diabetes is still to exercise and watch one’s weight.”
But that is easier said than done. These diseases are spreading across the Western World like an epidemic and are also a growing problem in Asian countries.
“Diabetes and other obesity-related diseases are complex diseases, in which genetics, hormones, and other factors interact with environmental cues in a way that is still largely unknown. From one diabetes patient to another the underlying disease causing problem may vary substantially although the outcome, i.e. diabetes, is the same. Thus a treatment that works for one patient might not work for another.”
“Conducting research is like putting together a puzzle. Some pieces are more important than others. Once they are in place, the others fall into place automatically. But every clue we discover raises another question. Hopefully, all of the pieces will fall into place one day, but more research and a broader understanding is needed before the puzzle is finished,” concludes Helena Edlund.
Name: Helena Edlund
Profession: Professor of Molecular Embryology
Leisure activities: runs
Likes to read: Crime novels
Likes to eat: Pasta with tomato sauce
Listens to: Disco – if I get to dance
A member of: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences