Boundary breaker:

Professor Mirela Delibegovic


Professor Mirela Delibegovic

Professor Mirela Delibegovic

Professor Mirela Delibegovic

Diabetes UK estimates that 13.6 million people in the UK are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and that up to half of those will already show signs of serious complications which reduce life expectancy by the time they are diagnosed*.

The University of Aberdeen’s Professor Mirela Delibegovic is leading research which could provide the key to unlock early intervention and diagnosis before the onset of the condition.

She heads up the Aberdeen Cardiovascular and Diabetes Centre exploring how diabetes, heart disease, ageing and Alzheimer’s are woven together.

Professor Delibegovic came to Aberdeen inspired by the legacy of the Nobel prize winner JJR Macleod – credited with leading the team which discovered insulin.

An Aberdeen graduate and later Regius Chair of Physiology, she has followed in his footsteps dedicating her research to the study of insulin resistance.

High blood sugar levels can seriously damage the body from the feet to the eyes as well as increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, limb amputations and – as some recent studies have demonstrated - can be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

“Understanding what causes insulin resistance and finding ways to postpone or even reverse these conditions is crucial to our future health,” she says.

“Diabetes, heart disease and ageing are woven together in a tangle of signals and work in in my laboratory  is to tease these signals apart.

“I began my research career 25 years ago, investigating signals that go wrong in the body to cause diabetes. To understand what goes wrong, we first need to gain more knowledge of the ways in which the body works at a cellular and molecular level. Our laboratory is playing a key role in furthering our understanding of how control signals work together, impacting everything from our immune system to our memory.”

Professor Delibegovic’s initial focus on signals linked to type 2 diabetes has grown to encompass research on artery-blocking plaques made of fat, the impact of body-wide inflammation and wound healing.

“Thanks to the team led by Professor Macleod, people living with type 1 diabetes, who do not produce insulin, have been able to inject it for more than a century,” she adds.

“But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the receptor through which insulin works was identified and this is crucial knowledge for type 2 diabetes, where the body produces insulin but it doesn’t do its job.

“We are trying to understand if we can use the targets post insulin receptor, to improve patients’ lives either through treatment or through earlier intervention.

There are a number of projects ongoing in the lab to understand not only how we can lower blood sugar levels, but also improve outcomes in cardiovascular disease by targeting atherosclerosis, or how we improve wound healing in diabetes as patients living with diabetes often experience non-healing wounds and foot ulcers, which in some cases lead to amputations.

“In addition, we know that there is a close relationship and correlation between type 2 diabetes and increased risk of developing dementia (and other way around), and so this area of research has huge potential to address some of the biggest health challenges in the world today. We are currently testing experimentally certain nutritional interventions that could improve cognitive health as well as metabolic health”.  

The aim of all of Professor Delibegovic’s work is to be translational – turning the findings made at the bench into diagnostic tools, medicines, nutritional interventions, policies or education. To do this, she collaborates with researchers worldwide and from a range of different disciplines.

“My hope is that the research we are doing now will lead to simple, achievable and affordable therapies that tackle diabetes and its complications in the future – whether these are drug based or nutritional interventions.”