Paul Zimmet fights the global diabetes epidemic

Paul and Felix

Paul Zimmet holds his Senior Australian of the Year Award and his grandson, Felix. Photo: Supplied

Emeritus Professor Paul Zimmet AO FTSE brought diabetes to Australia’s attention. For four decades, the award-winning scientist has been an international leader in the field and his work has had a profound impact on many Australians.

In the 1980s he predicted the current global epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and, in 1984, established the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.

With more than 890 research papers published, Professor Zimmet is considered one of the world’s top minds in diabetes research, and is ranked in the top 10 diabetes researchers for global impact.

Professor Zimmet was named the 2018 Victorian Senior Australian of the Year. Here, he looks back at his pioneering work and the ongoing challenges of diabetes.

How did you feel being named the Victorian Senior Australian of the Year?

It is exhilarating but also a tribute to my family, team and philanthropists who have supported my goal to advocate greater awareness and action for people with diabetes and others at high risk.

Diabetes is arguably the fastest growing epidemic in Australia. Being 2018 Senior Victorian Australian of the Year provides me with a stronger advocacy platform.

I saw the urgency for recognition in its own right. For 40 years I have fought for this to improve management and prevention.

What is it about diabetes that you find so interesting? What was it that drove you?

I could write a book about this. While in training, I saw diabetes was being treated “as just another” endocrine (hormonal) condition. I saw the urgency for recognition in its own right. For 40 years I have fought for this to improve management and prevention.

The person with diabetes needs the support of a healthcare professional team, not just to manage the disorder with medications, but lifelong attention to prevent serious complications such as blindness, heart attacks, and kidney failure. Then there are co-morbidities including sleep apnoea and depression.

What are some of the challenges in diabetes research today?

The cause of type 1 diabetes is still unknown so its prevention is difficult. At Monash, we developed the Anti-GAD test, now used worldwide to detect those at highest risk, but prevention remains an issue.

Type 2 diabetes is not a single disorder and has numerous metabolic defects so the drugs we use may help some people but not others. We can prevent it with lifestyle measures in many instances without actually knowing the basic cause/s. These are just some of the exciting challenges that makes diabetes so interesting.

What’s your proudest career moment?

2018 Senior Victorian Australian of the Year is very hard to beat but as I was a pretty average medical student at the University of Adelaide, receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University in 2017 also ranks highly!