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Do chemical changes to kidney DNA cause diabetic kidney disease?

29 November 2023

Dr Abigail Lay from the University of Manchester has been awarded an Intermediate Fellowship grant of £235,000 to investigate whether chemical changes to DNA can cause diabetic kidney disease and medications which reverse these changes could be used as a novel treatment option. 

The problem

Diabetic kidney disease is a growing global problem, occurring in up to 50% of people with diabetes. Current therapies focus on controlling diabetes, rather than treating the diabetic kidney disease more directly. To manage this disorder more effectively it is important to understand what factors contribute to kidney problems in patients with diabetes. Abigail is aiming to learn more by looking at a process called ‘DNA methylation’.  

Portrait image of female with curly brown hair, glasses and wearing a scarf
Dr Abigail Lay

The solution

All cells within an individual contain the same DNA. A kidney cell knows that it’s a kidney cell rather than a liver cell due to the specific combination of genes that are turned on and off. This allows cells to specialise and perform their roles. Cells switch genes on and off by a process known as ‘DNA methylation’, where a small chemical (a methyl group) is added to the DNA. By studying and understanding the way DNA methylation might be different in diabetic kidney disease, Abigail hopes to understand more about the causes of this disorder. Abigail is also aiming to reverse the serious medical changes seen in diabetic kidney disease by undoing any problematic DNA methylation changes.  

What this might mean for kidney patients

Abigail’s work could mean new treatments for diabetic kidney disease that act directly on the cause of the disease, rather than just controlling symptoms. DNA methylation is likely to play a role in several different diseases. By developing techniques for studying and addressing these problems Abigail could help many patients.  

Female researcher at her desk looking at computer monitors
Dr Abigail Lay

"I am absolutely delighted to have received this award from Kidney Research UK! This interdisciplinary project will help provide clarity on whether changes in DNA methylation cause diabetic kidney disease and whether strategies to reverse damaging changes in DNA methylation could be developed as a new treatment.  

This award is also a really important “stepping stone” for my career as a researcher as I develop my research profile and interdisciplinary skillset. I’m really excited to start working with my collaborators and look forward to sharing the results!” Dr Abigail Lay

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