The new research that could transform diabetes treatment

13 November 2017
The $5 million gift towards a new approach to diabetes

In the lead-up to World Diabetes Day 2017, newly appointed Associate Professor Samantha Hocking is determined to challenge the one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.

Associate Professor Samantha Hocking

Associate Professor Samantha Hocking

Associate Professor Samantha Hocking has treated hundreds of patients with diabetes, but one in particular stands out. The woman was in her late 40s and obesity was affecting every aspect of her life. Her joints were sore and her cholesterol was high. She relied on huge doses of insulin to keep her diabetes in check.

Then she had bariatric surgery to help her lose weight. Her diabetes went into remission.

Some time afterwards, Hocking noticed her patient was sporting a new tattoo. When she asked about it, the woman told her it was the date of her surgery – the day her life changed.

“I remember thinking, gee, that’s pretty profound,” Hocking says.

The endocrinologist has seen how the right treatment can transform lives. Now, thanks to a $5 million philanthropic research grant from Diabetes NSW & ACT, she is working to develop treatments that are tailored to individual needs.

Hocking has swapped her clinical work as a staff specialist at Royal North Shore Hospital to establish a University of Sydney research program that could transform the way diabetes is diagnosed and treated. Working with the Charles Perkins Centre, she will explore information about the genes, environment and other characteristics of patients in order to develop a more precise approach to managing the disease.

“When it comes to metabolic disease, we are still using a one-size-fits-all approach and it’s a bit of a blunt instrument,” Hocking says. “Your genes are unique to you and there could be things about your genes that make it more likely you will be susceptible to a particular disease or responsive to a particular treatment.”

We are still using a one-size-fits-all approach and it’s a bit of a blunt instrument.
Associate Professor Samantha Hocking

By measuring proteins in blood, she hopes to find patterns that could help predict which patients are at high risk of developing severe complications with diabetes, leading to individualised treatment plans.

Hocking says the precision approach should extend beyond medication. “These are lifestyle diseases as well as genetic diseases,” she says. “You may have a strong genetic disposition to type two diabetes, but if you can modify your lifestyle ­in the best way for you, you may be able to prevent it.

“As a clinician, when you tell someone they are at risk, they sometimes glaze over, thinking, ‘I can’t stick at the exercise, I can’t stick at the diet’. And maybe we’re not giving quite the right advice for them.”

Hocking’s appointment is supported by a $5 million donation to the University from Diabetes NSW & ACT. The organisation’s CEO, Sturt Eastwood, is excited by the Charles Perkins Centre’s holistic approach to diabetes research.

“Samantha’s research is so important in helping us build a stronger understanding of the physiological and psychological impact of diabetes on individual patients,” Eastwood says. “We’re very happy to support world-class research that will help us find better treatments and hopefully a cure for future generations.”

In Australia, an estimated 1.7 million people have diabetes. It is the fastest growing chronic condition in the country.

For Hocking, the gift from Diabetes NSW & ACT allows time away from her clinical work to delve deep into research. “Being a clinician allows you to help a lot of people, but there are only a certain number of patients one person can see in a day,” she says. “This gives me the opportunity to reach out and potentially affect the lives of so many more.”

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