A new study at at Queen’s University Belfast will examine DNA samples from 20,000 people with diabetes to help identify the genetic factors in diabetic kidney disease, the leading cause of kidney failure worldwide.

The five-year project is part of a new £3.7M U.S.-Ireland research partnership that aims to explain why some people with diabetes are at higher risk than others of developing kidney failure.

The grants have been awarded under the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership Program. This initiative brings together world experts in diabetes and genetics research at Queen’s University, University College Dublin, University of Helsinki in Finland and the Broad Institute, Boston.

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Diabetes affects one in 12 of the world’s population. The rapid upsurge in diabetes is fuelling an increase in the number of people with kidney failure, with diabetic kidney disease now the most common cause of end-stage kidney failure in the world. Up to 40% of diabetes patients in the UK develop kidney complications.

Diabetic kidney disease is often not detected until it is at an advanced stage. Over 50,000 patients in the UK are in end-stage kidney failure, which requires chronic dialysis or kidney transplant, with dialysis costing around £35,000 per person each year. One out of every four patients starting dialysis each year in the UK and Ireland has diabetic kidney disease.

Professor Peter Maxwell from the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University said the project has three main goals. “Firstly, we will explore important variations in DNA to discover why some people with diabetes are at higher risk of kidney failure compared with others who seem to be protected from developing this complication. Secondly, we hope to better understand how having a poor control of diabetes – high blood sugars over a long period of time – can lead to the re-programming of DNA and an increased risk of kidney failure. Thirdly, we aim to develop new tests that could be used to screen people with diabetes to assess their risk of developing kidney complications and help select the best preventative treatment.

Dr Janice Bailie, Assistant Director of the Public Health Agency’s HSC R&D Division, which is funding the Northern Ireland part of this project with support from the Medical Research Council, said: “We are delighted to be funding this project which will tackle an important area of public health. We expect that the outcomes of this international research will lead to significant advances in the treatment of patients with diabetic kidney disease in the UK, Ireland and beyond.”

This research partnership is a unique arrangement involving funding agencies in the USA, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who combine resources to enable the best researchers to work together on research to address critical issues and generate valuable discoveries that will impact on patient care.