First Breast Cancer — Then Type 2 Diabetes

Posted on 12.06.2019

Danish research team to study the damage caused by chemotherapy in the hope of preventing complications such as diabetes

First breast cancer, then type 2 diabetes. That is the reality for some women who undergo chemotherapy. But it won’t stay that way if human biologist Linn Gillberg, PhD, and the research team around her at the University of Copenhagen and Rigshospitalet have anything to do with it. She has been given time over the next three years to study the changes caused by chemotherapy so that doctors can learn how to prevent women developing type 2 diabetes following breast cancer.

Linn Gillberg is entering what is almost a new field of research, and little is yet known about what happens in the body or how many cancer patients are affected.

‘There are registry-based studies looking at diagnoses before and after treatment, but they are somewhat ambiguous. We do see a generally impaired glucose profile, though, especially in people who were overweight to begin with. Canadian research from 2013 showed that approximately 10% of women who survived their breast cancer developed diabetes in the following six years or so. However, treatment has changed a little since 2013, so this isn’t directly transferable’, says Linn Gillberg.

‘What we do know is that many of the women find they gain weight. Their blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure often go up, all of which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and other conditions’, she says.

In addition, chemotherapy increases the risk of age-related mutations in the blood cells. These genetic changes can affect the structure of the DNA and the ability of the cells to specialise. As well as increasing the risk of leukaemia – another disease that can be triggered by chemotherapy – these mutations can also cause inflammation in fatty tissue and blood vessels, thus contributing to the development of cardiovascular diseases, quite apart from type 2 diabetes. 

Study will look at changes in 80 women’s blood

Specifically, Linn Gillberg will start by studying genetic changes in blood samples from 80 women with breast cancer before and after chemotherapy and relate the findings to patients’ metabolic health. She will also investigate the fatty tissue for molecular changes, focusing on metabolism, energy production and inflammation. Sixteen post-chemotherapy breast cancer patients and ten healthy age-matched women will be included in the study.

‘All in all, this project will build a bridge between clinical and basic biomedical research by linking clinical markers and biological properties in blood and fatty tissue samples’, she says.

Linn Gillberg currently works at Rigshospitalet and is to take her postdoc at the University of Copenhagen under the supervision of Professor Flemming Dela.

Her three-year postdoctoral project has been made possible by a grant of 1.8 million Danish kroner from the Danish Diabetes Academy.

The Danish Diabetes Academy was founded in 2012 and is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Danish universities and university hospitals. Its objective is to strengthen Danish diabetes research and treatment by helping to train the diabetes researchers and practitioners of the future.

Linn Gillberg:
Tel. +45 35456071

Danish Diabetes Academy
Managing Director Tore S. Christiansen 
Tel. +45 29646764


Linn Gillberg, 37, is a Swede but trained as a human biologist in Denmark and has spent all her working life here. Over the next three years, she will work on finding strategies to prevent chemotherapy causing breast cancer patients to develop other diseases such as diabetes later on.

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