Wajd sitting in front of two monitors

Wajd Alkabbani is exploring the intersection of type 2 diabetes and dementia

Wajd Alkabbani’s education journey has led her across continents and provinces. Trained as a pharmacist in Kuwait University, Alkabbani was drawn to research early on in her career.

“With wet lab research, I wasn’t engaging my pharmacy training very strongly,” says Alkabbani, a PhD candidate at Waterloo Pharmacy. “I knew I wanted to do something clinical but not necessarily in the pharmacy practice space. I’ve always been fascinated with the world of epidemiology and biostatistics.”

Her undergraduate thesis focused on epilepsy and sparked an interest in neurology. Alkabbani followed that up by moving to Canada to complete her Masters at the University of Manitoba, where she worked with Dr. Christine Leong and researched the use of pharmaceutical cannabinoids from an epidemiological perspective using data from the renowned Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP).

“It was through this research that I met Prof. Gamble at a conference,” she says. “I was intrigued by his work in the diabetes space and wanted to see how I could work in that area while also building on my expertise in neurology. We sat down and came up with a project together that would examine both diabetes and dementia.”

Alkabbani began her PhD with Prof. Gamble in May 2019, and today she is hard at work on her dissertation. Her work examines the complex relationship between type 2 diabetes and dementia using population-based data from British Columbia.

Her thesis explores two themes using anonymized administrative datasets in British Columbia called PopData BC which contain data on all interactions with the healthcare system – from hospitalizations and physician visits to prescription dispensation records. The first theme examines the association between diabetes complications, both chronic and acute, and dementia.

“Diabetes is a condition that has many complications, from macrocomplications like stroke or myocardial infarction to microcomplications like neuropathy and retinopathy.” she says. “By understanding if these chronic complications increase the risk of developing dementia down the road, we can provide knowledge on two levels. First, on an individual clinical level wherein we provide insight that helps clinicians and patients develop and execute care plans. Second, on a population level wherein we help inform public health initiatives that focus on diabetes education and dementia prevention”

Alkabbani’s research also focuses on hypoglycemia, an acute complication that is common in those with type 2 diabetes who are taking insulin. This diabetes complication is less studied than others, and Alkabbani plans to quantify the risks associated with it.

“My study is observational in nature which means I’ll never be able to identify 100% casual relationships between factors,” she says. “However, through these complex analyses we’ll be able to quantify risk. For example, we’ll be able to say things like: if you’ve been hospitalized for a diabetes complication you are a certain number of times more likely to develop dementia down the road.”

The second theme her dissertation explores is the consequences of dementia on diabetes complications and management. Working with the same dataset composed of longitudinal “real-world data” from patients over roughly 30 years, Alkabbani is exploring what happens to people after they get a dementia diagnosis. There are recommended medication changes that come with a dementia diagnosis – for example, insulin is often avoided – and Alkabbani is curious to see how often clinicians follow the therapeutic recommendations for patients with both type two diabetes and dementia.

Although she’s studying in Ontario, Alkabbani is using British Columbia data because it’s best suited to her methodology. It’s substantial in scope, given British Columbia’s population, and follows patients over a prolonged period, from a diabetes diagnosis to a dementia diagnosis potentially many years later. Due to limited drug coverage in the province, Ontario data is not well suited for her work.

Alkabbani is the recent recipient of the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada Doctoral Award (2021-2024). The Society’s prestigious research program attracts applicants from across Canada and beyond. Alkabbani has also received the Mike & Valeria Rosenbloom Foundation Research Award as a result of the donor’s interest in her work. The recognition has spurred her to continue her work.

“The number of Canadians with dementia is expected to double over the next three decades,” she says. “While most medical conditions have a personal and a public health impact, the impact of dementia extends to families and loved ones with a social, psychological, and a monetary effect. Dementia research offers hope to the community and a roadmap to clinicians and health care providers.”