May 25, 2019
2 min read

New partnership examines effect of pollution on type 2 diabetes risk

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Sansum Diabetes Research Institute is launching a first-of-its-kind partnership with the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to study the association between type 2 diabetes and pollution exposure.

David Kerr

“Across the United States, we see a disproportionate number of type 2 diabetes cases by race and ethnicity,” David Kerr, MD, FRCPE, director of research and innovation for Sansum, told Endocrine Today. “We do not believe that this is simply related to genetics or poor lifestyle choices. We think there is much more to this, probably within the realm of the social determinants of health, which include environmental exposure.”

In a joint, 1-year collaboration, Sansum and a master’s student group at the Bren School will combine existing sets of data on pollution exposure, diabetes and race from Santa Barbara County, California, with the goal of developing a practical risk screening tool.

“We are seeing an explosion of diabetes in populations that have been more industrialized

in recent years such as China, India and Brazil,” Kerr said in a press release. “Questions we need to ask include: Is there an increased risk of diabetes the closer you live to a freeway? Is there an increased risk of diabetes if you’re an agricultural worker working with pesticides? Is the risk of diabetes in unborn children increased because of proximity to a freeway or a farm? How much harm are we doing to ourselves? How much of that is contributing to the epidemic of diabetes?”

In addition to analyzing the existing database, Bren School master’s students will apply analytical skills to identify ways to ease environmental drivers of diabetes risk in the communities most vulnerable to pollution exposure and diabetes, according to the release.

“In order to understand this, we are recruiting at least 1,000 Latino families where at least one person has diabetes,” Kerr told Endocrine Today. “Over the course of the next decade, or longer, we are collecting information on the five determinants of health, which are genetics, biology, psychology, behavior and the environment. To achieve this, we are upskilling traditional community health workers so they become proficient in type 2 diabetes, clinical research and care navigation to access and retain families.”

Participants will provide blood samples, undergo physical exams, complete validated questionnaires and wear activity trackers, Kerr said. That data will be analyzed with existing big data sets measuring air quality and particulate matter.


“We approached the Bren School and they received our potential collaboration with great enthusiasm because they see a link between the changes in the environment and health,” Kerr said in an interview. “We have these master’s students starting to look at existing big data sets measuring air quality and particulate matter. We want to link these to where we see clusters of diabetes to see if there is a relationship between where you live and the risk for diabetes. Eventually, we want to start putting in local sensors so we can prospectively capture the data.”

Sansum is also looking to partner with Groundswell Technologies to incorporate strategically placed sensors to identify regions of pollutant exposure concern, concentration ranges, temporal patterns, exposure durations and causal relationships, Kerr said.

“I’m looking for a company with a good wearable sensor that can collect air quality data,” Kerr said. “Then, we can match that sensor data with continuous glucose monitoring data and get real-time information.”

Kerr said the first data from the collaborative project will be made available later this year. – by Regina Schaffer

Disclosure: Kerr reports no relevant financial disclosures.