An extreme close-up of an eye

We are proudly co-funding a prestigious and competitive Diabetes UK RD Lawrence Fellowship awarded to Dr Giulia De Rossi at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology to support early career researchers to become leaders in diabetes research.

Diabetes UK has been awarding RD Lawrence Fellowships for many years to researchers who go on to become independent leaders in their field.

In a recent evaluation looking back over 15 years, Dr Jocelyn LeBlanc, Diabetes UK Research Impact Lead, found that 92% of former fellows secured funding to take their research forward within a year of their grant ending and 64% are currently leading their own diabetes research group.

Fellows used words like​‘instrumental’ and​‘life-changing’ to describe their fellowship, and said it helped them get through a career transition point, establish their independence, and mentor the next generation of researchers.

We’re thrilled to fund Dr Giulia De Rossi’s fellowship in partnership with Moorfields Eye Charity. We can’t wait to see how her career develops during this fellowship and look forward to the impact that her research will have for people affected by diabetes and eye problems.

Dr Jocelyn LeBlanc, Diabetes UK Research Impact Lead

Dr De Rossi is searching for new ways to prevent damage to the blood vessels in the eye and treat early stages of diabetes-related eye disease. 

This is an important and pressing area of research given that diabetes is one of the largest epidemics the world is currently facing. 

463 million

people were living with diabetes in 2019

700 million

people are predicted to be living with diabetes by 2045

What is diabetes

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Diabetes is a condition characterised by high blood sugar levels because the body cannot control it effectively.

The amount of sugar in the blood is controlled by a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas (a gland behind the stomach). When food is digested, the most basic form of sugar called glucose enters the bloodstream. The hormone insulin moves glucose out of the blood and into cells, where it’s broken down to produce energy.

In diabetes, the body is unable to break down glucose into energy. This is because there’s either not enough insulin to move the glucose out of the bloodstream, or the cells in the body do not respond to insulin correctly.

There are two main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes – a lifelong condition where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin
  • Type 2 diabetes – where the body does not produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells do not react to insulin properly


of all adults in the UK with diabetes have type 2

Many people with diabetes will gradually develop diabetic retinopathy (DR) and diabetic macular oedema (DMO) due to the high blood sugar levels causing damage to the blood vessels in the light-sensitive part of the eye, called the retina.

These are debilitating complications of diabetes and a leading cause of vision loss in people aged 50 and over. 

The challenge

If left untreated, vision loss can be a serious long-term effect of diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a complication that affects the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) at the back of the eye and can result in vision loss.

1 in 13

people in the UK live with diabetes

DR is a slow-progressing disease which starts asymptomatic but can evolve into the sight-threatening advanced stages of diabetic macular oedema (DMO) and/​or proliferative DR.

Diabetic retinopathy - learn more

Learn more

Early diabetic retinopathy is unlikely to affect vision, but the condition can progress to sight-threatening stage. Mild non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (where tiny bulges appear in the blood vessels in the retina) and moderate to severe non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (where the condition becomes more severe and bleeding into the retina occurs) put patients at high risk of experiencing vision problems in the future.

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) and diabetic macular oedema (DMO) are serious stages of diabetes-related eye disease. PDR sees blood vessels in the retina closing, resulting in a loss of blood supply to this part of the eye. Scar tissue and new, fragile blood vessels then form on the retina. These can lead to a significant amount of bleeding and a high risk of scarring on the retina, retinal detachment and vision loss.

Patients with DMO have leaking or blocked blood vessels in their macula (the central area of the retina responsible for central vision and identifying details). As a result, the tissue can swell and vision is highly likely to be affected. Without treatment, patients with DMO may be unable to drive or read, even if their side vision remains normal.

Diabetic patients need to be tested regularly to detect early signs of DR. With the advancement of imaging techniques, it is now possible to detect diabetic eye disease before patients show any visual symptoms. 

The current standard of care for diabetes-related eye disease relies on drugs that block vascular endothelial growth-factor (VEGF). Unfortunately, these drugs are only effective at the late, vision-threatening stages of the disease.


of people with diabetes aged between 20 and 79 years show signs of diabetic eye disease


of people with type 1 diabetes or who have lived with diabetes for >20 years show signs of diabetic eye disease

This means that a patient who is diagnosed with early DR is then closely monitored until their vision deteriorates, as only then these drugs can have a therapeutic effect. 

Only around 50% of patients respond to anti-VEGF treatment.

Even if the anti-VEGF treatment is effective, it is short acting and requires painful monthly eye injections. 

It is possible that once the advanced stage of DR is reached, the damage to the blood vessels cannot be reversed and the treatment stops working.

As cases of DR are increasing there is a dire need to discover new ways to treat this condition.

Finding a solution

Dr De Rossi’s research focuses on the role of a molecule called leucine-rich-α2-glycoprotein-1 (LRG1) and its effect on pericytes, a type of cells which tightly wrap around the smaller blood vessels in the retina and provide them with critical support.

In early DR some pericytes start to dysfunction which is thought to trigger a sequence of biological events resulting in vision loss. 

This is recognised as important disease mechanism in early DR but is currently poorly understood. 

Experimental evidence shows that when LRG1 is present, it disrupts pericytes’ function while lack of LRG1 protects from diabetes-induced vascular damage. 

Clinical studies revealed that LRG1 is elevated in the eyes of people with diabetes.

Network of blood vessels in the retina showing endothelial cells (blue) and pericytes (pink)

Using preclinical models of diabetes and the early stages of DR, alongside human retinal tissue, Dr De Rossi will investigate the role of LRG1 in early pericyte dysfunction.

She will also test whether blocking LRG1 with an antibody, developed and tested at the Institute of Ophthalmology by Professors Stephen Moss and John Greenwood, could have potential as an earlier treatment for DR to prevent vascular damage and vision loss.

The potential

Understanding the subtle but critical changes to retinal blood vessels during the early stages of DR could hold the key to new therapies that would potentially delay or even prevent the irreversible vascular damage in diabetes. 

Dr De Rossi’s work could mark an important step forward in the understanding of the early vascular events in DR. 

The results could provide the evidence needed to support future clinical trials of the therapeutic LRG1 blocking antibody. If successful, this could enable earlier treatment of people with DR, potentially stopping the disease before any vision loss has occurred. 

Making of a future leader

Dr Giulia De Rossi

Dr De Rossi is a vascular biologist who is interested in the processes that drive pathological changes to blood vessels and the development of new therapies to target vascular diseases.

I am an enthusiastic researcher and I have proven capability of translating my findings into early drug development. I am optimistic that I can deliver similar results in the future. After 13 years of experience in this field, I feel ready to establish my own research group in translational vascular biology.

Dr Giulia De Rossi

Dr De Rossi’s career highlights

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  • A PhD in Microvascular Research from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL); discovery and patent of a novel, anti-angiogenic molecule.
  • Research associate in Professor Stephen Moss’s lab, UCL IoO since July 2019; promoted to Senior Research Fellow in October 2022 on the basis of research, education and outreach achievements.
  • Principal investigator on a successful UCL Wellcome Trust pilot scheme award to test the efficacy of anti- LRG1 antibody in diabetic macular oedema.
  • Presented research findings at national and international level (17 overall in 9 years, with 4 presentation prizes), including at the Association of Research in Vision and Ophthalmology conference, Denver, USA, in May 2022.
  • Published 18 papers, 7 as first and 4 as corresponding author.
  • Teaching assistant for the MSc in Biosciences Entrepreneurship; laboratory supervisor of research students, visitors and work-experience pupils; since July 2019, acting as day-to day supervisor for a PhD student.
  • Recorded educational videos and talks for UCL ACCELLERATE, a set of interlinked portfolios of training events, experiences and resources aimed at upskilling the UCL research community in translational research.
  • Academic co-lead for the ECR committee for the Institute of Ophthalmology.
  • Presented to diabetes patients and relatives interested in research into diabetes.
  • Member of Diabetes UK Complications Steering Group
  • Member of the UCL Therapeutic Innovation Networks for Biologics steering committee.
  • London manager for Pint of Science: an annual 3-day festival during which scientists describe their research to the general public in the comfort of a pub/​café.

Project Details

Funding scheme

MEC and Diabetes UK RD Lawrence fellowship

Grant holder

Dr Giulia De Rossi

Area(s) of work


Our award level


Start date

September 2023

Grant reference