$2.2 million grant will support study of diabetes and ‘metabolic memory’

October 12, 2015 | by Kelly Lopez

Looking into the “memory” of diabetes and its potential for harming various organs takes the sleuthing and determination of a scientific Sherlock Holmes. Just ask Rama Natarajan, Ph.D, chair of the Department of Diabetes Complications and Metabolism within the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Institute.

Natarajan is identifying the markers of complications and metabolic memory in type 1 diabetes. Already she’s found that heritable, or epigenetic, changes within chromosomes can lead to blood vessel damage and inflammation in some people with type 1 diabetes. That damage in turn can lead to severe complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, amputation and even death.

Now, a $2.2 million grant will help expand her team’s understanding of the disease and its complications. Awarded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the three-year grant will help Natarajan explore the role that epigenetic markers play in the progression of diabetes complications. It will also help advance her team’s understanding of how prior episodes of hyperglycemia can lead to a “metabolic memory” of persistent vascular complications, despite subsequent glycemic control.

Recent evidence suggests that epigenetic factors may regulate genes associated with diabetic complications, but without permanently altering the underlying DNA itself, as would happen in a genetic mutation.

With this awareness of metabolic memory, she noted, “we now have a window of opportunity for therapeutic intervention, because although some of these changes can be passed on to future generations, they are not written into our DNA.”

Natarajan is at the forefront of research on the complications of diabetes and the first to study epigenetic changes in diabetic vascular complications and metabolic memory.

“This new grant will enhance our ability to gain ground against the complications of type 1 diabetes,” she said.

To accomplish this, her team will perform epigenomic profiling studies with stored biosamples from patients with type 1 diabetes and who are experiencing metabolic memory.

“Our studies could lead to identifying new biomarkers for early detection and more effective therapies for the debilitating complications of type 1 diabetes,” Natarajan said.

She added that mistakes that might occur in the epigenetic program are not mutations and thus have the potential to be corrected through medical intervention. Natarajan’s goal is to uncover epigenetic mechanisms responsible for complications susceptibility and metabolic memory.


Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Grant Number 1DP3DK106917-01.  The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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