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Why is diabetes a risk factor for heart disease?

Dr Kenneth Tran working with one of the bio-instruments that he is using to understand how diabetes leads to heart failure. Credit: T. P. Babarenda Gamage

Dr Kenneth Tran from the University of Auckland will develop a computer model to study how diabetes can lead to heart failure. The findings will help to develop new therapeutic strategies for diabetic patients

Published 2 November 2017

The human heart is an elegant yet complex machine that continuously beats throughout our lifetime. The healthy functioning of our heart depends on a delicate balance of interacting cellular processes.  However, disease can disturb this balance, often with catastrophic consequences. One key example is ‘diabetic heart failure’ which arises from complications of diabetes. However, uncovering the mechanisms that link diabetes and heart failure remains an ongoing challenge.

Dr Kenneth Tran, and Associate Professor Andrew Taberner from the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute, with Professor Edmund Crampin from the University of Melbourne, have received a Marsden Fast-Start award to address this important question. Every cell in our bodies contains mitochondria, which are the powerhouses essential for energy production. Dr Tran proposes that the primary driver of diabetic heart failure is defects in mitochondrial function. These defects cause a decline in energy supply within heart cells, leading to a reduction in the heart’s ability to pump properly.

To test this, Dr Tran will take an interdisciplinary approach to characterise how diabetes leads to the development of heart failure at the cellular level. To do this, he will develop a novel instrument, purpose-built at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, which enables experimental measurements to be made under very specific conditions. With the data, he will build a novel computational model of how diabetic cells function, and use the model to unravel the complex interactions responsible for diabetic heart disease. He will also use the model to simulate potential treatments to identify critical time points at which treatment could improve heart function.

The findings of this study will raise the prospects for the development of new therapeutic strategies for diabetic patients. With diabetes affecting 6% of our population, this research has the potential to lead to better health outcomes and improved well-being of New Zealanders.