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Diabetes is a serious chronic disease on the rise. An estimated 3.5 million Canadians were reported to live with diabetes in 2018, a number expected to grow to 4.7 million by 2028.  

Worldwide, diabetes has reached epidemic proportions with approximately 422 million people afflicted with the disease. 

Science has long been chasing after a cure as well as ways to prevent and treat diabetes. 

Some of the latest research is coming out of York University’s Faculty of Health where Tara Haas, a professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science, has found that improving blood vessel growth can help mitigate serious health problems arising from obesity, a common cause of Type 2 diabetes. 

Her research finds that inhibiting specific proteins within blood vessels stimulates new blood growth, which in turn creates healthier fat (adipose) tissue and lower blood sugar levels. 

It’s a significant discovery. 

“Blood vessels are the key to keeping you healthy and the smallest of these vessels, the capillaries, are the most vital – they form the core of every single organ in your body, providing cells with oxygen and nutrients,” says Haas, who leads a team of York researchers in ongoing studies of angiogenesis, or blood vessel generation, inside the Life Sciences Building on the Keele Campus. 

“When everything is working well, we don’t even think about the jobs done by our blood vessels. But increasingly it’s becoming obvious that many of the diseases we suffer from involve a dysfunction in those blood vessels. Looking at what regulates capillaries, particularly what causes them to disappear or to grow, provides a new strategic avenue to improving health.”

Previously, research into angiogenesis has tended to focus on increasing the amounts of growth factors. The York University team takes a different approach, looking more at the inhibitors involved in the blood vessel growth process, or, as Haas puts it, “the brakes that might need to be taken off before the cells can respond.”  

By investigating specific proteins produced by the endothelial cells that make up capillaries, she and her research team have been able to hone in on one specific protein in particular – FoxO1 – that keeps cells quiet and less active in the presence of disease. 

These results are useful for scientists who want to increase the FoxO1 protein when blocking angiogenesis in cancer tumours, for instance. But Haas and her team want to do just the opposite. 

They want to lower the levels of the FoxO1 protein in pathologies where blood vessel growth is insufficient – as is the case with diabetes – to kick-start endothelial cells into reproducing.

By lowering levels of this protein, endothelial cells become more active, forming new capillaries. Fat tissue is also healthier and the overall ability of the body to handle blood sugar is improved, as observed in obese mice who eat a high fat diet. 

“Diabetes is associated with a lot of problems in places like the muscles, the heart, the kidneys and adipose tissue, and part of that problem is because the disease is having a negative effect on blood vessels,” Haas says. 

“Our research indicates that if we can change the behaviour of blood vessels, we can improve the health of the cells in those organs. It won’t take the diabetes away. But it will improve the health and overall well-being of those with the disease.”   

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