UCSB biomedical researchers recently discovered that Type 2 diabetes is triggered by alterations in cellular metabolism as opposed to predetermined genetics.

Their findings were published on Dec. 27 in the open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS ONE. The team’s efforts were spearheaded by molecular, chemical and developmental biology professor Jamey Marth, whose previous work on the molecular makeup required to create macromolecules served as the basis for the current research.

Type 2 diabetes is a lifelong disease affecting nearly 26 million Americans that causes abnormally high blood glucose levels. According to UCSB chemical engineering professor Frank Doyle, a member of the research team, victims’ bodies either do not produce enough insulin or their cells do not detect the insulin.

“The really interesting thing about Type 2 diabetes is a collection of diseases and disorders in the body that all share a common manifestation over the mismanagement [of] glucose levels,” Doyle said. “In the case of Type 2, the body does not respond to insulin. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.”

According to the paper’s first author, Camilla Luni, a UCSB postdoctoral researcher during the study and current student at the University of Padova in Italy, Type 2 diabetes is a very complex disorder involving multiple organs of the body.

“[The disease] is also very heterogeneous: Some patients seem to have a genetic predisposition to this disease, but in other cases lifestyle plays a very strong but not obvious role,” Luni said in an email. “Our model supports a link between diet and Type 2 diabetes. Our model quantitatively confirmed the molecular building blocks involved in this interaction between diet and diabetes that were previously identified in Professor Marth’s lab.”

The molecular building blocks that were the focus of Marth’s previous research include genetic macromolecules such as DNA and RNA and acquired macromolecules such as glycans and lipids. Luni said the current research was a combined effort to expand upon Marth’s work and better understand the nature of the disease.

“The importance of diet in diabetes prevention was already well-known,” Luni said. “However, highlighting the molecular mechanisms that link diet and beta cell function tells how far a patient is from developing the disease and offer[s] new therapeutic opportunities, especially for prevention in patients at risk of diabetes.”

In carrying out the study, researchers cooperated with personnel from different departments and implemented extensive computer simulations to achieve their results. According to Doyle, the collaborative effort gave researchers room to learn and benefit from one another while progressing in their pursuit of critical new information.

“My lifelong excitement about sciences is that I prefer to work on the boundaries of disciplines,” Doyle said. “The notion of one field in isolation [that] can solve all the problems is crazy, of course. I think for me, intellectually, the excitement is at the boundaries of the interfaces — the kinds of problems that biology alone can’t solve, engineering alone can’t solve. But engineers combined with biologists can really push the boundaries of understanding. So, for me, that characterizes all of the research I do in my lab; all of my research is interdisciplinary. We are always reaching out as engineers to scientists, biologists [and] ecologists to try to collaborate across boundaries to solve these difficult problems.”

According to Doyle, UCSB is particularly strong in interdisciplinary research, giving the university an advantage in the field of health despite the campus’ lack of a medical facility.

“I would like to point out that there are a lot of exciting things happening in the UCSB medical arena and people may not think of UCSB and medicine because we don’t have medical school,” Doyle said. “But the fact is that there are very hard problems in medicine that are yielding to these interdisciplinary approaches … and UCSB rides on interdisciplinary research. This is what we do best. So I would say to the community, keep an eye on UCSB. There are a lot exciting things happening in the medical arena.”

Third-year biology major Alan Sackrider said the disease’s presence in the nation may be largely associated with an increase in Americans’ consumption of fatty, unhealthy food and decreased exercise regimens.

“Incidents of diabetes have increased as we as a society [are] consuming things that cause high glycemic spikes such as foods with simple sugars,” Sackrider said. “It tastes good. Food has become cheaper and more available. Exercise rates have fallen.”

Sackrider said he was proud to know that the research took place at his own campus.

“If the research is recognized by the wider, brighter and more experienced professionals in the scientific community that I aspire to be a part of in the future, that’s really great because it’s bringing up the prestige and the reliability of the degree here,” Sackrider said. “I mean, really, that is what the professors are here for, right?”

According to Doyle, while the team’s research has not yet yielded an immediate solution, it will undoubtedly help provide insight into the nature of the disease.

“This research on Type 2 diabetes is more in the basic research stage so we don’t have a sort of miracle drug that’s going to come out of the research right away,” Doyle said. “We don’t have an obvious therapeutic intervention right away. We have a better understanding of the disease and any drug company will tell you nowadays that really the key to finding good therapies, good targets for drugs, is having a good understanding of the disease. So I think the big contribution out of the work is a better elucidation of the disease and the onset of the disease, and that will guide research toward therapeutics.”

According to chemical engineering professor Samir Mitragotri, who is currently engaged in the research of drug delivery and biomaterials, the study provides a solid foundation for further research into various areas of health.

“Understanding the mechanisms of disease pathogenesis and using this knowledge to develop new therapeutics is an important area of research,” Mitragotri said. “UCSB researchers are highly active in developing therapeutic strategies for a variety of illnesses including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular [diseases] and blindness.”

A version of this article appeared on page 4 of January 9th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.