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SA’s first-ever Diabetes Research Centre launches

The University of Pretoria (UP) has launched South Africa’s first exclusive Diabetes Research Center at a public academic institution.

UP launches diabetes research centre

“The UP Diabetes Research Centre is a collaborative initiative that brings together all the research happening in silos in different departments.”

Senior Project Manager, Dr. Patrick Ngassa Piotie

Although housed in the Faculty of Health Sciences, the centre adopts a trans-disciplinary approach. It works across faculties to develop research that aims to improve the lives of people living with diabetes. “It is a holistic approach to address the challenges around diabetes, from prevention to care, and will lead to a new vision in diabetes research,” Dr Ngassa Piotie said.

A new vision in diabetes research

Diabetes, which is caused when blood glucose levels are too high, is the second most common natural cause of death in South Africa. 4.6 million people live with the condition. According to the Department of Health, only 19% of people with diabetes treated in the public health system manage to control their glucose levels. The danger of uncontrolled diabetes is that it can lead to strokes, blindness, heart attacks, kidney failure or amputation. Uncontrolled diabetes also has dire economic consequences on individuals, families, communities and ultimately the country; diabetes can lead to increased healthcare expenses as well as people losing their income.

Six clusters of the centre’s research strategy

The centre’s research strategy is organised around six clusters:

  1. The prevention of diabetes
  2. Diabetes management in primary healthcare
  3. Diabetes management in hospitals
  4. Gestational diabetes (developed during pregnancy)
  5. Diabetes in children and adolescents
  6. Diabetes technology.

Gestational diabetes research

The gestational diabetes cluster, headed by Professor Sumaiya Adam of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, is the most prolific. PhD, MSc and MMed research ranges from a 10-year audit of pregnancies affected by diabetic ketoacidosis (when the body breaks down fat too fast and becomes acidic) to a profile of circulating microRNAs (genes) in pregnancies complicated by diabetes.

The centre’s main project to date is the Tshwane Insulin Project (TIP). Punted as “translational research in its prime”, it is impacting the lives of South Africans living with Type 2 diabetes as they transition from oral drugs to insulin. This is through the implementation of a nurse-driven, app-enabled and community-oriented intervention.

An academic development

One of the Diabetes Centre’s mandates is academic development.

“Being a university, we want to keep producing scientific knowledge that is relevant and impactful. In the long term, we want to develop researchers, a new generation of African investigators in translational and health systems research, and implementation science.”

Dr. Ngassa Piotie
Dr. Patrick Ngassa Piotie

The centre has already received a number of proposals. One example is from Sonja Mostert of UP’s Department of Psychology, to look at the challenges people with diabetes experience in adopting healthy eating habits and taking up exercise.

Existing research includes:

  • A study by Dr Maria Karsas of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health on COVID-19 and diabetes.
  • A PhD in dietetics on the dietary implementation of glycaemic load on blood glucose control of patients with diabetes, and
  • Tech-based solutions to disease management such as the use of sensors to monitor glucose continuously in patients admitted to hospital in a diabetic coma.

Telehealth solutions

Another use of technology that UP’s Diabetes Research Centre will pioneer is telehealth, where healthcare is provided remotely by means of phones or smartphones. (You can read about telemedicine in South Africa here.) These services can include patient education or consultations with a specialist, a crucial aid in the South African public healthcare environment where there is often a shortage of health professionals.

The centre recently obtained approvals from the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Research Ethics Committee as well as the Tshwane Research Committee to pilot a screening programme for diabetes retinopathy using telehealth and artificial intelligence. Primary care patients will have access to a state-of-the-art camera that detects eye damage due to diabetes.

Healthcare providers training

In addition to its research activities, the centre will also offer healthcare providers training, such as a three-day workshop on diabetes and insulin management for nurses in primary care that Enterprises UP will administer.

Prof. Paul Rheeder

Professor Paul Rheeder of UP’s Department of Internal Medicine is the centre’s Director. Its management committee includes Dr Ngassa Piotie and the head of each research cluster. Professor Tiaan de Jager, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, chairs the centre’s advisory board. Apart from Prof Rheeder and Dr Ngassa Piotie, the 14-person board includes representatives from the World Health Organisation, the South African Medical Research Council, Sweet Life and the Diabetes Alliance of South Africa, Youth with Diabetes, the National Department of Health, the Gauteng provincial government and the City of Tshwane.

Prof Rheeder and Dr Ngassa Piotie’s initial proposal for the UP Diabetes Research Centre outlined its value:

“Through the UP Diabetes Research Centre, the University will have a meaningful impact on the lives of thousands of South Africans who are alone and without voice before a dreadful condition.”

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.