Our scientists study blood flow in diabetes

Endothelium

Changes to blood flow in people with diabetes, and how it could be improved, are being explored by researchers at the University of Strathclyde.

The study will investigate the relationship between blood flow and the inner layer of cells in the blood vessel, known as the endothelium, which coordinates virtually all of blood vessels’ function.

Changes in blood flow can cause blood vessels to contract or relax, grow wider or narrower, or the formation of new blood vessels. These changes happen because blood flow affects the endothelium, which then responds to the mechanical force of flowing blood by triggering one or more of these processes to occur.

The endothelium’s responses are critical to prevent the surrounding tissue from being starved of the oxygen and nutrients it needs but in people with diabetes, this response is impaired, so less blood reaches the tissues, compromising the way that the heart, eyes and kidneys work.

The study by researchers Professor John McCarron and Dr Calum Wilson, of Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, has received funding of £204,947 from the British Heart Foundation.

Professor McCarron said: “Studying the endothelium with existing microscope technology has been difficult, so we have developed new technology to see the inside of blood vessels.

“We have found that blood flow causes the endothelium to release a molecule known as acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is normally thought of as something released from nerves to make muscle contract and it was very unexpected to see that the endothelium could act in the same way. 

“Acetylcholine release from the endothelium causes changes in calcium in cells, which open and widen the arteries, facilitating blood flow. This process is impaired in people with diabetes, and helps explain why blood flow is compromised.

“This three-year BHF grant will allow us to determine exactly how blood flow causes the endothelium to release acetylcholine, produce changes in blood vessel function, and what prevents its effect in diabetes – is less being released or more broken down after being released? This could lead to new ways to improve blood flow in people with diabetes.”

Risk

There are 280,000 adults in Scotland living with diabetes and thousands more are estimated to be undiagnosed, according to BHF analysis of Scottish health statistics. The condition is a major risk factor for developing heart and circulatory disease.

James Cant, Director of BHF Scotland, said: “We’re delighted to be funding this pioneering research at the University of Strathclyde investigating the process of blood flow and its effect on blood vessels. Diabetes can double a person’s risk of developing heart and circulatory disease, so we want to find new ways to minimise the damage it can cause.

“Thanks to our supporters, universities in Scotland have been at the forefront of improving treatment, diagnosis and prevention of cardiovascular disease, here and around the world.”