The number of overweight and obese children is on the rise — and they are developing diabetes at younger ages.
This can lead to diseases and complications that will haunt these kids throughout their lifetimes, including kidney disease, nerve damage, and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps most devastating to quality of life is the loss of vision that often occurs in people with diabetes.
Taubman Emerging Scholar Durga Singer, MD, has made it her mission as a pediatrician and scientist to understand what links excess calories and weight to these adverse health conditions. In her laboratory, she studies how factors such as diet and weight gain activate the immune system and contribute to disease. Her aim is to develop new, more effective tools to predict, prevent and treat the life-long, devastating complications of diabetes.
In collaboration with Taubman Scholar Tom Gardner, MD, MS, a U-M ophthalmologist and retina expert, Dr. Singer will assess eye health in pediatric diabetes patients, take blood samples in order to study white blood cell counts and perform annual re-screenings of these patients’ vision. Usually treated only after it becomes apparent to the patient – and irreversible – diabetes-related vision loss may be curbed or prevented if scientists like Dr. Singer can find a way to predict, at an early age and before sight is diminished, whose eyes will be affected.
“We think that one factor that leads to complications of diabetes is an increased inflammatory response,” said Dr. Singer. “Individuals who are heavier are known to have a chronic state of white blood cell activation. White blood cells that would normally be attacking infection are creating organ damage.”
By studying the relationship between weight, inflammation and eye health, Dr. Singer intends to develop predictive methods that can lead to earlier intervention and treatment to prevent diabetes-related vision loss.
Dr. Singer expects that with a 100-patient cohort she could deliver meaningful results in as little as two years, leading to changes in recommendations for standard exams for children with diabetes.
“We already have a lot of interest in participation from patients and their families,” said Dr. Singer. “We see children with diabetes every three months, so they really feel part of the U-M team and want to help.”