Per-Olof Berggren and Kerstin Brismar, Rolf Luft Centrum

At the Rolf Luft Centre at the Karolinska Institute, Per-Olof Berggren and Kerstin Brismar are researching in diabetes and the complications brought on by the disease and how to prevent and treat the disease.

An important step in curing an illness is to understand it. Per-Olof explains how his research team works and what they hope to achieve.

“We try to understand how insulin-producing cells function normally, and why they fail to do so in diabetes.  In order to study this, we’ve developed a method that makes it possible to examine the cells of a living organism without having to make any drastic interventions. For the first time, we’ve been able to study the individual cell under conditions where both vascular and nerve supplies are intact,” explains Per-Olof and continues:  “This is a scientific breakthrough and the method has already been taken up by other research groups. Development of this unique approach was made possible thanks to the very generous donation from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation.”

He goes on to describe other challenges and issues that his research team will endeavour to resolve at the Rolf Luft Center. “We’re also trying to see if cells from a mouse behave in the same way as those from a human being, which means that we’re studying what is known as cell structure and function.  What we’ve noticed is that they differ markedly from each other. This discovery is of major importance because if you want to base the development of a drug on tests that have only been done with mice as your starting point, you run the risk of making significant errors.”

While Per-Olof’s work focuses on the underlying problems of diabetes, Kerstin Brismar is concerned with issues including the complications that develop in the vessels and nerves in diabetes.  She has developed a new method that enables you to see at an early stage whether a person is at risk of developing diabetes type two.  “By identifying those individuals who are at risk of developing diabetes, it’s possible to make adjustments to a person’s lifestyle to prevent the disease from breaking out,” says Kerstin.

She continues by explaining the process involved in finding out how complications arise and what you can do to prevent them. “My research includes investigating why there are complications involved in this disease that become serious in some individuals, and less severe in others.   Examples of complications include kidney damage that can lead to the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant in order for the patient to survive, slow-healing foot ulcers that can lead to amputation and hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke.”

We are working to cure diabetes

Our research, for example, includes looking at genes that have been altered, so-called mutations that can increase or reduce the risk of serious complications.  We study how high sugar concentrations affect gene and protein expression in, for example, the skin, kidneys and heart, and have found some key proteins that are adversely affected by high sugar and, thus, the hundreds of other proteins they control.   By influencing these proteins, we can prevent the onset and progression of the disease. We are also developing new substances that reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, i.e. the negative effects of high glucose, and that we may, therefore, be able to develop into new drugs in the future.”

Per-Olof and Kerstin explain why it is so important for them to be able to continue their research into diabetes.  “Diabetes is the greatest epidemic of our time and, within 10-15 years, 10 per cent of the world’s population could be affected.  So it’s a huge problem that will continue to grow,” says Kerstin. “It will take a long time to cure diabetes but, until then, we must do everything we can to help those who are suffering from the disease today,” adds Per-Olof.

Per-Olof and Kerstin tell us what the support of the Erling-Persson Family Foundation has meant to them.  “It has been absolutely crucial in enabling us to carry out and maintain our research at the Rolf Luft Center.  We currently have around 70 researchers and post-graduate students (PhD students) who have the privilege of working here as a result of the long-term support provided by the Erling-Persson Family Foundation. Long-term financial support also provides a sense of security that encourages us to try out new methods and test exciting new hypotheses that we would not otherwise be able to afford.  It’s the unexpected that can lead to important discoveries,” says Kerstin.  “The Rolf Luft Center is a centre of excellence, in other words, we conduct world-leading diabetes research, and that is a direct consequence of this long-term support.  This kind of research takes time.  That’s why it’s important to have a benefactor with the vision and the courage to invest far into the future,” says Per-Olof.