Targeting a protein called Beclin-1 could pave the way for new treatments to combat heart disease in patients with diabetes.
People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes face a heightened risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure, while coronary heart disease is believed to be the biggest cause of death in diabetic patients.
This breakthrough was made by researchers at the University of Otago, New Zealand. A team led by Dr. Rajesh Katare identified that autophagy – a normal process in which cells are destroyed – was uncontrolled in the hearts of type 2 diabetic mice.
This increased autophagy led to the progressive loss of cardiac cells, and as more die, heart failure follows.
Comparing 35 type 2 diabetic patients to those without diabetes, the researchers observed that diabetes increased autophagy. This occurred through activation of the Beclin-1 protein.
Testing on rat heart cells that were exposed to high glucose, the researchers lowered the gene expression of Beclin-1, leading to reduced autophagy and cell death rates.
Dr Katare said: “Given that the growing diabetes epidemic is set to create major global economic and social costs in coming decades, it is very exciting to have opened up a new research avenue that could greatly decrease the disease’s burden.
“We found that these molecular alterations begin in the diabetic heart from an early stage of the disease – before any clinically identifiable symptoms – so blocking them could be useful in combating cardiovascular complications in diabetes.”
The Otago team believe analysing levels of microRNA, a small molecule in the human bloodstream, could determine Beclin-1 activity levels. This could then provide doctors and patients with an early heart health warning and enable treatment options to be assessed.
The findings of this study were published in the International Journal of Cardiology.

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