Type 2 diabetes is a major, common and escalating disease estimated to affect at least 90,000 Tasmanians by 2033. It is also progressive, becoming more severe over the course of a lifetime and leading to an array of other serious complications including heart attack, stroke and blindness.

The early symptoms of the disease are also common and present among healthy people. This means the warning signs for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes can be missed for up to 10 years, a pivotal period for prevention before the disease is established. 

University of Tasmania medical researcher Dr Stephen Myers is on a mission to  stop Type 2 diabetes in its tracks.

This window of opportunity to catch insulin resistance before it turns to Type 2 diabetes is imperative. Diet and exercise have a huge impact on the reversal of this disorder and if we catch it soon enough, people don’t need to be dependent on medications for the rest of their lives.

Dr Myers is looking to target this window of opportunity in people who are pre-diabetic and showing signs of insulin resistance. His research team is looking under the microscope to understand how molecules interact with each other to enable glucose to enter the cell to provide energy. More specifically, Dr Myers and his team are looking at proteins called zinc transporters that move zinc to the inside of a cell to enable glucose to be converted to energy more effectively.

In people with Type 2 diabetes, glucose is not processed effectively, which presents the question for Dr Myers and his team: how can zinc transporters in cells be targeted to ease this process?

Taking a closer look at skeletal muscle tissue

Working alongside his PhD students and the surgeons at Launceston General Hospital, Dr Myers has been collecting samples of skeletal muscle tissue from patients with Type 2 diabetes undergoing hip and knee replacements and screening these samples for zinc transporters in comparison to a healthy control group.

Pioneers in this area of skeletal muscle tissue and Type 2 diabetes research, Dr Myers and his team are collaborating with researchers around the world looking at the other systems of the body to see how they all relate. His team is the first to find the importance of the role zinc plays in controlling glucose metabolism in skeletal muscle tissue. Taking a further dive into these findings, Dr Myers and his research team could be heading in the right direction in finding a method to slow down insulin resistance.

Our findings focusing on zinc in skeletal muscle tissue have sparked interest on an international level to research this area further. Because the skeletal system was not a common system to be studied in terms of Type 2 diabetes research, it has now spurred an interest to look at other systems and tissues that have also been overlooked.

To counter symptoms and maintain health after a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, patients are placed on a number of medications that are often clinically severe with an array of harsh side effects. Seeing an opportunity for novel therapies, Dr Myers is hoping to find a method for zinc transporters to be targeted directly through supplementation or another form of zinc therapy.

Collaboration is key

As with most research, the process to find answers is time consuming, but Dr Myers is committed to helping people with this disease. Much of the credit to keep him focused and driven for more answers is due to the support of his peers and mentors.

“I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some of the brightest minds at the University of Tasmania. Researchers in the School of Health Sciences and Professor Nuala Byrne studying obesity and metabolic disease, share a common interest in combining our research efforts to help put a halt to Type 2 diabetes.”

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.

Find out more about the College of Health and Medicine here.

About Dr Stephen Myers

Dr Myers has a broad interest in metabolic disease with a particular focus on insulin resistance and zinc transporters in skeletal muscle. Insulin resistance is of major global concern because it is increasingly implicated in the development of type 2 diabetes (T2D), heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and stroke. Steve's research has shown an exciting role for the physiological importance of zinc and the proteins that transport zinc in cells, in diseases associated with abnormal cellular signalling and metabolism, such as insulin resistance.

View Dr Stephen Myers's full researcher profile