12 April 2024

Professor Juleen Zierath awarded prestigious grant to study how circadian rhythms control type 2 diabetes


The €2.5 million Advanced Grant from the European Research Council will support research into the mechanisms that underpin the relationship between the circadian clock, diet and exercise, and metabolism, and their dysfunction in type 2 diabetes.

A portrait of Professor Juleen R. Zierath
Professor Juleen R. Zierath receives a €2.5 million Advanced Grant from the European Research Council .

When is the right time to exercise? To eat? To take different drugs? Scientists already know that our bodies respond differently to food, exercise and medication depending on the time of day. That is because our bodies keep time through a circadian clock, which ensures that the body’s biological processes are optimally synchronized with the environment.

The risk of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes increases when circadian rhythms are disrupted. While there are many treatments available, the majority target biological pathways that follow a circadian rhythm. This means that the time of day could play an important role in optimizing treatment. The same goes for diet and exercise, the first line of treatment for people living with type 2 diabetes, whose health impacts are also modulated by the body’s circadian rhythms.

The problem is that scientists still don’t understand how circadian rhythms affect the impact of exercise, and the uptake of food and drugs, on a molecular level. This is the goal of a new research project by Professor Juleen R. Zierath, from the University of Copenhagen and Karolinska Institute. The project, CIRCAMET, was awarded a five-year €2.5 million (DKK 19 million) Advanced Grant from the European Research Council, which are available to leading researchers with a proven track record of significant achievements.

I am delighted to receive my second ERC Advanced Grant, this time to support important research into the circadian control of type 2 diabetes.

Professor Juleen R. Zierath

The overarching hypothesis of CIRCAMET is that synchronizing diet and exercise to the molecular circadian clock may maximize the health benefits on metabolism.

"I believe that this research holds enormous potential for discoveries that can lead to new therapeutic and preventative measures for type 2 diabetes, which globally is an epidemic, with prevalence now in excess of 500 million cases," says Professor Juleen R. Zierath.

A step toward chronomedications
Studying the influence of circadian rhythms on type 2 diabetes is complicated, due to the interplay of factors. Traditional studies into the effects of diet and exercise on metabolism tend to study each factor individually. The data they capture also tend to represent snapshots in time, which may not depict the full picture.

CIRCAMET will harness the potential of new ‘omics’ technologies to allow scientists to study the impact of diet and exercise on metabolism at the same time. And instead of capturing snapshots, they hope to study the same cells and organs over an extended period, rather than simply capturing moments in time.

The research may help to develop so-called “chrono medicines”, which may help to treat type 2 diabetes by resetting the disrupted circadian rhythms that cause it. The research may also inform new interventions that that promote primary lifestyle modifications with the body’s daily rhythm to improve energy homeostasis.

“Integrating many different types of data over time involves a high degree of risk, but if successful it will offer high reward,” says Professor Juleen R. Zierath.

ERC Advanced Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the names of 255 outstanding research leaders in Europe set to be awarded ERC Advanced Grants. The funding is amongst the EU’s most prestigious and competitive, providing leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. The new grants, worth in total nearly €652 million, are part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme.

This competition attracted 1,829 proposals, which were reviewed by panels of internationally renowned researchers. Nearly fourteen percent of proposals were selected for funding. Estimates show that the grants will create 2,480 jobs in teams of new grantees.  

The ERC Advanced Grants target established, leading researchers with a proven track record of significant achievements. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in mid-career researchers (12-17 years post-PhD), who have been successful in the Advanced Grants competitions, with 18% securing grants in this latest round.