2013 Healthy Development Adelaide Award

Professor Jennifer Couper

Professor Jennifer Couper was presented with the Healthy Development Adelaide Award at the 9th annual HDA Oration ‘Can we change the environment to prevent diabetes in childhood?'.

Professor Jennifer Couper heads the Discipline of Paediatrics, University of Adelaide, and the Diabetes and Endocrinology Department, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, SA. She established the Children’s Research Centre in the Robinson Institute, University of Adelaide. She trained in paediatrics in New Zealand, and in children’s hospitals in UK, Canada, and Melbourne, before taking up her appointment in Adelaide in the 1990s.

She heads paediatric diabetes and paediatric endocrinology clinics at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital which care for >1500 children.

Her research focuses on the prevention of childhood diabetes and the prevention of vascular complications in children and adolescents, who have diabetes. She coordinated the first study to determine what puts children at higher risk of diabetes in Australia. Last year the national study of the environmental determinants of diabetes in children (ENDIA) began under her direction.

She is the Principal Investigator for the SA arms of international prevention trials in type 1 diabetes and the international Adolescent Diabetes Cardio Renal Intervention Trial. She contributed to the NHMRC Guidelines for the Management of Type 1 Diabetes in Childhood and Adolescence in Australia and to the International Guidelines for the Management of Type 1 Diabetes in Childhood.

She is on the steering committee of the Juvenile Diabetes Research International clinical research network.

Oration overview: The incidence of type 1 diabetes in childhood has increased worldwide, having doubled in Australia over the last 20 years. This supports the importance of the modern changing environment in the development of childhood diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, representing 95% of childhood diabetes, is preceded by a period of months to years when the insulin producing cells are destroyed by the immune system, leading to diabetes. Regulation of our immune systems is strongly influenced by interactions between our gut bacteria and the immune system. There is growing appreciation of the impact of the trillions of healthy bacteria that live in our bodies on our health, and specifically on type 1 diabetes. Many recent changes in our environment including nutrition, weight gain, and infections, may interfere with our immune system early in life by changing the healthy bacteria that inhabit our gut. Excessive weight gain in particular may also increase the need to make more insulin, making children more susceptible to developing diabetes. There are over 50 genes that increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Different gene combinations influence the effects of different exposures in the environment on the risk of diabetes. If we can identify the environmental triggers we will have a way of intervening to restore a healthy immune system in the body to prevent diabetes.

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