The University of Pretoria (UP) has launched South Africa’s first exclusive Diabetes Research Centre at a public academic institution.
Approved by the university senate in November last year, the centre is a collaborative initiative that brings together all the research happening in silos in different departments.
The centre’s Senior Project Manager, Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie, said that although housed in the Faculty of Health Sciences, the centre adopts a transdisciplinary approach and works across faculties to develop research that aims to improve the lives of people living with diabetes.
“It is a holistic approach to address the challenges around diabetes, from prevention to care, and will lead to a new vision in diabetes research,” Piotie said.
Diabetes, which is caused by too high blood glucose levels, is the second most common natural cause of death in South Africa, where 4.6 million people live with the condition.
According to the Department of Health, only 19% of people with diabetes treated in the public health system manage to control their glucose levels. The uncontrolled diabetes can lead to strokes, blindness, heart attacks, kidney failure or amputation.
Dr Piotie explained that the centre’s research strategy is organised around six clusters, including the prevention of diabetes; diabetes management in primary healthcare; its management in hospitals; gestational diabetes (developed during pregnancy); diabetes in children and adolescents; and diabetes technology.
“The centre’s main project to date is the Tshwane Insulin Project (TIP). Punted as “translational research in its prime”, it is impacting the lives of South Africans living with type 2 diabetes as they transition from oral drugs to insulin through the implementation of a nurse-driven, app-enabled and community-oriented intervention.
“One of the centre’s mandates is academic development. Being a university, we want to keep producing scientific knowledge that is relevant and impactful. In the long term, we want to develop researchers, a new generation of African investigators in translational and health systems research, and implementation science,” Dr Piotie said.
He noted that the centre has already received a number of proposals, including one from UP’s Department of Psychology, to look at the challenges people with diabetes experience in adopting healthy eating habits and taking up exercises.
“Existing research includes a study by Dr Maria Karsas of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health on COVID-19 and diabetes, a PhD in dietetics on the dietary implementation of glycaemic load on blood glucose control of patients with diabetes, and tech-based solutions to disease management, such as the use of sensors to monitor glucose continuously in patients admitted to hospital in a diabetic coma,” Dr Piotie said.
Another use of technology that the centre will pioneer includes telehealth, where healthcare is provided remotely by means of telecommunication tools, including phones or smartphones.
The Senior Project Manager said these services can include patient education or consultations with a specialist, a crucial aid in the South African public healthcare environment where there is often a shortage of health professionals.
“The centre recently obtained approvals from the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Research Ethics Committee as well as the Tshwane Research Committee to pilot a screening programme for diabetes retinopathy using telehealth and artificial intelligence. Primary care patients will have access to a state-of-the-art camera that detects eye damage due to diabetes,” he said.
In addition to its research activities, Dr Piotie said the centre will offer healthcare providers training, including a three-day workshop on diabetes and insulin management for nurses in primary care to be administered by Enterprises UP. – SAnews