A table with two plates of vegetables and a sandwich next to a white cup.

News | one year ago

Leading Discoveries to Improve Diabetes Care

Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine lead the North Carolina Diabetes Research Center, using the latest treatments and therapies to improve care for diabetics.

More than 1 million North Carolinians have been diagnosed with diabetes and an additional 244,000 people in the state have the disease but don’t know they have it, greatly increasing their health risk. Another nearly 3 million North Carolinians – that’s 35% of the state’s adult population – have prediabetes.

Common diabetes health complications include heart disease, chronic kidney disease, nerve damage and other problems with feet, oral health, vision, hearing and mental health. That’s why organizations like the North Carolina Diabetes Research Center (NCDRC) are so critical. The NCDRC is the only center of its type in the state and is led by Dr. Donald McClain, director of Wake Forest University School of Medicine’s Center on Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. The NCDRC coordinates diabetes research efforts across four premiere research institutions in the state: Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina A&T State University. McClain currently leads the 269 members spread across the four institutions.

The NCDRC is just one of three Diabetes Research Centers (DRCs) in the Southeast and one of only 18 DRCs in the United States It currently collects more than $70 million a year for support of its diabetes research. It was formed to create an interactive regional scientific network to support innovative diabetes research by connecting investigators to each other and providing access to powerful research technologies.

“The Center takes advantage of our complementary strengths and helps investigators, particularly early career ones, tackle the entire realm of issues related to diabetes, from molecular mechanisms to human physiology to population and health equity concerns,” said McClain.

Meals for Moms

One of the most important aspects of the Center’s mission is its Pilot and Feasibility (P&F) Program, which provides funding for small, initial studies undertaken by NCDRC members. To be eligible, faculty members at the four NCDRC institutions must meet certain requirements, which are largely focused on supporting new investigators in the diabetes field. Successful pilot applicants receive up to $50,000 in direct costs for one year.

One of the pilot studies funded by the P&F Program is called Meals for Moms and is being conducted by Morgana Mongraw-Chaffin, assistant professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. She is recruiting 30 postpartum women who experienced gestational diabetes during their pregnancies and will provide 20 of them with medically tailored meals after they give birth. The intervention is designed to positively influence their food choices to prevent the development of chronic Type 2 diabetes. Meals for Moms will provide healthy meals for the first three months and the researchers will measure glucose by providing continuous glucose monitors, so that the moms and babies do not need to come to a lab or clinic.

“There is a fair bit of support when they are pregnant, but then not a lot when they go home,” said Mongraw-Chaffin. “Anyone who has had a newborn at home knows that it’s a very challenging time. If it works and is cost effective, ultimately we would love to be able to show that there is an intervention like this that works so that payers like Medicaid might choose to cover the costs. That would potentially be a huge impact financially on these women’s lives.”

Impact of Keto Diet

Kylie Kavanagh, associate professor of pathology - comparative medicine and molecular medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, leads another NCDRC pilot study. Kavanagh’s research focuses on the potential role of diet in the association between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Type 2 diabetics have two to four times more risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Although the mechanisms linking the diseases are unknown, experts believe that diet and metabolism may be a factor. Kavanagh is measuring the impact strict ketogenic diets have on the production of Alzheimer’s proteins.

“If we can show that this approach reduces chances of Alzheimer’s risk, then you would have more confidence advising that this might be a strategy that could be useful,” said Kavanagh. “If the study meets expectations, we could conclude that this ketogenic diet looks like a rational approach for an older diabetic at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, such as people who have a family history or are showing earlier signs of dementia, if the diet is something that they can tolerate. Once people have clinical signs of Alzheimer’s, it’s too late.”

Know Your Risk

Individuals can prevent or delay Type 2 diabetes with proven lifestyle changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the below are key risk factors for developing Type 2 diabetes:

  • Prediabetes: blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed as Type 2 diabetes.
  • Obesity: leading risk for developing diabetes.
  • Forty-five years or older: children and teens can develop Type 2 diabetes, but the risk increases as a person gets older.
  • Family history: have a parent, brother or sister with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: are physically active less than three times a week.
  • Gestational diabetes: diabetes that develops during pregnancy or if a mother has given birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds.
  • Ethnicity: African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native person and some Pacific Islanders and Asian American individuals are at higher risk.

If you have a family history or other risks for diabetes, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider today to improve your overall health and get back to living fully. Visit our experts across the Piedmont Triad and Greater Charlotte regions in North Carolina and the northwest, central and south regions of Georgia.