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Wellcome Image of the Month: Diabetes

14 Nov, 2011
Cases before and after insulin treatment

Cases before and after insulin treatment

Today is World Diabetes Day. Led by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and its member associations, it engages millions of people worldwide in diabetes advocacy and awareness.

Diabetes is a major global health problem. With an estimated 346 million people living with the disease today that’s nearly 5 per cent of the population of Earth and more than double the 2000 figure. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that deaths resulting from diabetes will double between 2005 and 2030. While the vast majority (85-95 per cent) of those afflicted suffer from type 2 diabetes, caused by the body’s inability to properly utilise insulin and heavily linked to diet and lifestyle, the remainder live with the auto-immune disorder type 1 diabetes. And it is the latter that is subject of our Wellcome Image of the Month.

Type 1 is caused by a malfunction in the body’s immune system, leading it to destroy the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. As insulin is a hormone integral to the regulation of carbohydrate and fat metabolism within the body, the condition is fatal unless the patient receives insulin regularly.

The image above was taken in 1922; the year in which the discovery of insulin was confirmed by Frederick Banting and James Mcleod, who went on to win 1923’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work. This could suggest that the girl depicted in the photograph, published in the Journal of Metabolic Research, may very well have been one of the earliest recipients of life-saving insulin therapy.

Although medical science has known how to treat type 1 diabetes for nearly a century, the underlying causes – thought to be a result of multiple, interacting genetic and environmental factors – are still largely unknown. In an effort to characterise and understand the fundamental genetic causes of the disease, September 2000 saw the establishment of The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory in Cambridge.

From uncovering genetic variants that show reduced risk of type 1 diabetes in 2009 to their current work investigating phenotypic markers for the earliest precursors to the disease, the laboratory has dramatically increased our knowledge of the disease. For instance, the work of its director, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, Professor John Todd, has shown that genes encoding the HLA class II protein of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are key determinants of type 1 diabetes. Receiving over £40 million in funding from the Trust and The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation since its inception, the lab continues to investigate the mystery of type 1 diabetes.

Find out more about World Diabetes Day at the IDF’s official website.

Further reading and references:

Al McCartney, Wellcome Images

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. All our images are available in digital form so please click the link above if you would like to use the picture that features in this post, or to quickly find related ones. Many are free to use non-commercially under the terms of a Creative Commons licence and full details of the specific licence for each image are provided.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London
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