July 8, 2018  Print

National Diabetes Week (8-14 July) is an annual campaign dedicated to raising awareness about diabetes.

To mark this year’s theme, ‘It’s About Time’, we spoke with Professor Jenny Gunton, a clinician at Westmead Hospital and Director of our Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology, about her work in diabetes, and the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. 
Diabetes is a chronic, progressive condition that, if left untreated, can cause severe complications, including blindness, liver and kidney failure, nerve damage, and heart disease. 
Although rates of diabetes are steadily increasing in Australia, Professor Gunton notes that rates are particularly high in Western Sydney.
Professor Jenny Gunton
“We know that rates of type 1 and 2 diabetes are increasing across the country, with type 1 diabetes increasing at a rate of about 1 to 3 per cent per year,” Professor Gunton explained.
“Rates of diabetes in Western Sydney are higher than in the general population, particularly for type 2. Western Sydney has higher rates of obesity and lower rates of regular exercise, as well as a greater concentration of migrant communities that have an elevated risk of developing diabetes.”
In her work at Westmead Hospital, Professor Gunton runs a clinic that sees patients affected by diabetes complications. Professor Gunton notes the important of treatment in preventing patients from reaching this stage.
“We run several clinics for more complex cases of diabetes, such as in instances where a person’s blood sugar is not well controlled,” Professor Gunton said. 
“We want to prevent people from getting to the stage where their bodies sustain severe, irreversible damage. 
“There is really good evidence that suggests appropriate treatment reduces the risk of hand and foot amputations, heart disease, kidney and liver failure, blindness, and death within the next five to ten years,” she said.
In its early stages, diabetes is almost symptomless. However, Professor Gunton says that doctors are becoming more vigilant and detecting the condition earlier than before. 
“Sometimes, diabetes will be picked up during an unrelated blood test,” Professor Gunton explained.
“But we are now becoming better at detecting diabetes in its earlier stages, where patients have the best opportunity to manage the disorder and live longer, healthier lives.
“Taking the medication you’ve been prescribed, modifying your lifestyle appropriately and monitoring your condition is
Professor Gunton says that taking medication for diabetes is crucical, even if you don't have symptoms
crucial, even if you never develop symptoms,” she said. 
Professor Gunton and other researchers at the Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology are researching ways to help treat, manage and, potentially, cure diabetes.
Westmead is one of the sites in Australia where pancreatic islet transplants, a potential cure for diabetes, take place. This allows a person with type 1 diabetes to produce insulin, effectively curing the condition.
“Islet transplantation is a relatively new procedure which has the exciting potential to cure people with type 1 and hypo (low blood sugar) unawareness. While it is still in the early stages, we have been very impressed with our clinical trials so far, with many patients no longer needing to take insulin,” Professor Gunton said.
“Research at the Westmead Institute and Westmead Hospital is focused on continuing discoveries like the islet transplants, so we can help brighten the health prospects of everyone affected by diabetes.
“While a cure is still a while off, developments in treatment, management and care have made it possible for people with diabetes to stay complication-free, particularly if medical intervention comes early,” she concluded.
Diabetes fast facts 
  • One Australian is diagnosed with diabetes every five minutes
  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that prevents the body from producing insulin, the hormone that helps convert the sugars we consume into energy
  • Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition where the body becomes resistant to, or stops producing enough insulin
  • Untreated diabetes can lead to complications, including organ failure, heart disease, blindness and nerve damage
  • With the right treatment and lifestyle changes, diabetes can be managed

Find out more about the diabetes clinics at Westmead Hospital.

Professor Jenny Gunton is researcher at the Westmead Institute, clinician at Westmead Hospital, and Chair of Medicine, University of Sydney, Westmead Hospital.