Royal appointment for professor following in the footsteps of insulin pioneer

Professor Mirela Delibegovic
-Credit: (Image: University of Aberdeen)

His Majesty The King has approved the appointment of the University of Aberdeen’s first female Regius Chair of Physiology.

Professor Mirela Delibegovic will follow in the footsteps of insulin pioneer and Nobel prize winner JJR Macleod who held the position, endowed by the monarch, from 1928 to 1935.

While the discovery of insulin by Macleod’s Toronto research team provided a life-saving treatment for those with type 1 diabetes, the work of Professor Delibegovic has the potential to transform the treatment of people living with or who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

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She heads up the Aberdeen Cardiovascular and Diabetes Centre exploring insulin resistance and how diabetes, heart disease, ageing and Alzheimer’s are woven together.

Professor Delibegovic, who came to Scotland from war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994, says she is delighted to be awarded the Regius chair. “It doesn’t get better than this. It is a huge honour and until I saw it in writing I still didn’t believe it,” she added.

“I had been working as an academic in Boston when the opportunity to come to Aberdeen arose and one of the reasons I was attracted to the University was the legacy of JJR Macleod.

“Following in his footsteps as Regius chair is a true privilege and I hope that the work that we do here might one day have the same transformational impact as his team’s discovery of insulin.”

According to Diabetes UK,13.6 million people in the UK are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and that up to half of those will already show signs of serious complications which reduce life expectancy by the time they are diagnosed.

High blood sugar levels can seriously damage the body from the feet to the eyes as well as increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, limb amputations and – as some recent studies have demonstrated - can be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

Professor Delibegovic is leading work to understand what causes insulin resistance - when the body’s cells don’t respond properly to the insulin made or injected leading to increased blood sugar levels - and finding ways to postpone or even reverse these conditions.

“Diabetes, heart disease and ageing are woven together in a tangle of signals and work in in my laboratory is to tease these signals apart,” she said.

“I began my research career 25 years ago, investigating signals that go wrong in the body to cause diabetes. To understand what goes wrong, we first need to gain more knowledge of the ways in which the body works at a cellular and molecular level.

"Our laboratory is playing a key role in furthering our understanding of how control signals work together, impacting everything from our immune system to our memory.”

The aim of all of Professor Delibegovic’s work is to be translational – turning the findings made at the bench into diagnostic tools, medicines, nutritional interventions, policies or education. To do this, she collaborates with researchers worldwide and from a range of different disciplines.

She added: “There are a number of projects ongoing in the lab to understand not only how we can lower blood sugar levels, but also improve outcomes in cardiovascular disease by targeting atherosclerosis, or how we improve wound healing in diabetes as patients living with diabetes often experience non-healing wounds and foot ulcers, which in some cases lead to amputations.

“In addition, we know that there is a close relationship and correlation between type 2 diabetes and increased risk of developing dementia - and other way around - and so this area of research has huge potential to address some of the biggest health challenges in the world today.”

Regius chairs are prestigious positions instituted in disciplines judged to be fundamental and for which there is a continuing and significant need. Professor Delibegovic now holds one of only two Regius Chairs of Physiology in UK.

University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor George Boyne said: “A Regius Professorship is an extraordinary distinction bestowed upon academics who have made a real and lasting contribution to their field of research.

“At the University of Aberdeen, the Regius Chair in Physiology has a remarkable history and the appointment of Professor Delibegovic to the position will enable us to build upon the legacy of JJR Macleod, further strengthening research at the Aberdeen Cardiovascular and Diabetes Centre.

“Professor Delibegovic is leading work which means the University of Aberdeen will continue to play its part in the story of the treatment of diabetes and the alleviation of its consequences.”