Millions of people worldwide suffering from diabetes-related cardiovascular disease may soon have new treatments, thanks to cutting-edge research carried out at McMaster University.

Professor of medicine Geoff Werstuck says the likely molecular culprit for triggering atherothrombosis in patients with diabetes is the GSK-3 alpha protein.

“We’re figuring out the molecular mechanism and this is the likely bogeyman. When we have a better understanding of the process, we can develop drugs to prevent or slow down disease progression,” said Werstuck, who holds the new endowed research position as the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis-McMaster Chair in Thrombosis and Hemostasis (ISTH-McMaster chair). 

His research used mouse models to examine the link between raised blood sugar level and arterial plaques, a major complication of atherothrombosis. These findings are now being tested on human tissue samples.

Werstuck said once the molecular pathways and targets have been validated in human tissue samples, clinical drug trials will be the next step.

However, with such treatments still some way off, he advised people with diabetes to properly manage their illness, which will limit the build-up of fatty plaques in the arteries.

“If you have diabetes, you’re going to develop vascular complications and it’s very important to take care of yourself now, because the best treatments we currently have is controlling your blood sugar and cholesterol levels,” said Werstuck.

The endowed chair, worth $2 million, was recently established by McMaster’s Department of Medicine, the Thrombosis and Atherosclerosis Research Institute (TaARI) of McMaster and Hamilton Health Sciences, and the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis through the Hamilton Health Sciences Research Institute.

It was almost by accident that Werstuck first began his investigation into atherosclerosis and diabetes, having begun his career as a cancer and basic sciences researcher.

He took up his present line of research with the help of personal connections he made at McMaster as a graduate student 30 years ago.

“I feel truly blessed being able to do this and I’m lucky to be working with the excellent people in my lab, because they’re doing all the hands-on work. We’re very fortunate to be breaking new ground and being the first in making these discoveries,” said Werstuck.

“I tell my staff and students that it’s the best job in the world, always interesting with something new and a bit different every day.”

Werstuck obtained his BSc from McMaster in 1987 and stayed on for his PhD in biochemistry in 1993. He joined McMaster faculty in 2001.

He has spent most of the last two decades probing the links between diabetes and cardiovascular complications.

“Dr. Werstuck has already made very major and impactful contributions to this field,” said Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences.

“His research focuses on delineating the mechanisms by which diabetes promotes the progression and development of atherosclerosis, and this work is leading to more effective treatments and preventative strategies.”


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