Dr. Sarah Gray, associate professor with UBC Northern Medical Program. (Photo submitted)

Dr. Sarah Gray, associate professor with UBC Northern Medical Program. (Photo submitted)

UBC Northern Medical Program, UBC study to explore new safe, effective drugs for type 2 diabetes

‘Hopefully one day it will advance how we are treating people who live with diabetes,’ Dr. Gray said.

A university research project taking place in B.C. aims to provide evidence to support safe and effective treatments for type 2 diabetes.

It is estimated one third of Canadians have diabetes or pre-diabetes, with type 2 diabetes representing 90 per cent of cases.

Dr. Sarah Gray, an associate professor at the UBC Northern Medical Program at UNBC, is teaming up with Dr. Urs Häfeli, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UBC, for the research.

“We have quite a lot of oral anti-diabetic medications, but generally they are taken systemically, so you take a pill and the drug will go all over the body. So we know with those types of medications we get the good effects, the ones we want to have happen, but we also get the side effects,” Gray told Black Press Media.

She said the idea for the project is to try and find ways to target drugs to the tissues where diabetes is happening, something Häfeli has been working on developing already for cancer drugs to reach tumor sites in the body.

“The ones that we are going to use in the study are called magnetic nanoparticles which is just a big fancy word, but the goal of it is to try and bind that drug to the particle and then deliver it to specific tissue and in our case we are very interested in getting it just to the fat tissue.”

Ultimately, if that can be done, the drug would work in the fat tissue and avoid side effects to the kidney or the bones.

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The project is foundational with testing being done in labs at both UNBC and UBC.

“I’m a lab-based scientist and it is still early days. We are testing it in the lab to see if this idea could even work and then if the results were successful then the next steps would be to say, ‘OK, if this is working nicely in the lab, how can we actually make this work in patients,’” Gray said. “We are trying to develop new tools that could one day be implemented in a clinical environment.”

It has been interesting to be developing the project during the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

“I think with the development of the vaccines that have used some of the these kinds of tools that have been developed in the lab, I hope it has shown the public how important it is, that this foundational type of work is being done because it puts new tools in the pipeline.”

With Häfeli’s lab developing drug delivery tools and Gray’s long-time interest in diabetes, Gray said by coming together to work on the project they hope to improve the outcome for people with diabetes.

“That’s what’s exciting about this project for me, it really does bring together expertise two different areas of science. Hopefully one day it will advance how we are treating people who live with diabetes,” Gray said.

Funding for the two-year $198,743 project arrived in spring 2021 from the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, through the three federal research funding agencies – Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Research for the project is occurring in labs at both UNBC and UBC and will provide training opportunities for graduate students.

Gray’s interest in diabetes started during her PhD and subsequently she spent three and half years of her postdoctoral fellowship training in England with a group that works on obesity and diabetes.

“That’s where I did my initial learning and developed passion for this area of study. I came back to Canada in 2006 to work with a group at UBC and came up to UNBC in 2007 and have been here since.”

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