Helen Colhoun – University of Edinburgh

Professor Helen Colhoun’s research focuses on diabetes and its complications, taking a population level, or epidemiological, perspective.

 Part of Professor Colhoun’s JDRF funded work involves looking at large sets of data from people with type 1 diabetes, which include measurements of genetic information and measurements of certain molecules in blood samples from people with type 1 diabetes. Using these data, Professor Colhoun aims to discover the differences between those who go on to develop diabetes complications, and those who do not. 

If we can learn more about the factors that are associated with complications and with prolonged insulin production, we’ll be better equipped to diagnose, treat, and prevent these sometimes life-limiting conditions. Professor Colhoun also collaborates on clinical trials of treatments to prevent complications.

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How did you get involved in type 1 research?

As a junior doctor, I gained a very good understanding of clinical aspects of diabetes and also the impact of diabetes on people’s lives. This experience got me interested in the wider picture of public health and epidemiology – studying how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why, and identifying any trends or indicators.

I first became involved in diabetes research in 1996 as a member of the EURODIAB Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus Complications Study group led by John Fuller. I did my doctoral research on atherosclerosis of the heart vessels (where fatty deposits build up in the vessels) in type 1 diabetes using what were then novel imaging techniques to measure its prevalence and to explore the causes of this. In 1999 I was delighted to be awarded the Diabetes UK Young Clinician Scientist Award, which was very helpful at that stage of my career.

Has JDRF’s support made a difference to your research?

The funding support received from JDRF since 2011 has made a huge difference to me and my research group, and it has enabled new research in three main areas:

  • predicting early decline in kidney function and retinopathy in type 1
  • finding biological markers that indicate diabetic kidney disease in type 1
  • a clinical trial of the drug Metformin in reducing damage to blood vessels in people with type 1

In addition, through JDRF, I have had the opportunity to be involved with international meetings, and I am always delighted to share our knowledge and understanding with others at meetings and conferences.

Also as part of our JDRF-funded research, we have been invited to participate in Research Strategy Workshops, and to special events like the JDRF Aberdeen Ball. This allows us to understand what matters most to those with type 1 diabetes, and again it’s a very valuable insight for us as researchers when interpreting our analysis and results.

“We want our research to matter and make a difference”

What keeps you motivated in your work as a scientist?

My motivation is foremost to advance the quality and length of life for those with diabetes. Diabetes affects a very wide range of people throughout the world and we are very focussed in our research to advance our understanding of the cause and development, and means of prevention, of diabetes complications.

My research group and I are motivated by our scientific curiosity and the constant search for answers. Collaborative working with international groups is also helpful for keeping us up to date and ensuring that we make the most of our potential. For example, our work on the genetics of nephropathy (kidney disease) funded by JDRF includes researchers at Harvard University, University of Toronto, Folkhälsan Finland and the Broad Institute, Massachusetts.

We want our research to matter and make a difference – as well as sharing our knowledge and understanding with other researchers and clinicians working in diabetes, we communicate closely with organisations such as JDRF and Diabetes UK who work with people with diabetes and their families and professionals, and who help us disseminate our research. We speak directly with patient groups and this helps us to prioritise research areas that matter to those with diabetes. We also seek to make our findings known to those setting health policy.

What is your hope for your research in the future?

I hope that we identify biomarkers that predict who is most at risk of certain outcomes so that preventative action can be taken early, that we gain insight into unexplored processes involved in the development of diabetes complications that will inform new drug development, and that we generate knowledge into how beta cell function might be preserved or restored in type 1 diabetes.

When not in the lab, how do you spend your free time?

I have two young children and a very supportive husband, so lots of parenting and family time. Also I play a lot of tennis (badly but trying to improve!) and recently I started playing piano which I find very challenging but relaxing too.