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Type 2 diabetes and genetics: what is the link?

  • A recent type 2 diabetes study looked at the genetic profiles of more than 180,000 people.
  • Unlike previous studies that focused primarily on people of European ancestry, nearly half of the people in this study had non-European ancestors.
  • At the end of the study, scientists discovered 40 previously unreported genes that contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Recently published research in Natural genetics featured the most diverse genetic study of type 2 diabetes.

While scientists are aware of certain factors that can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a major question is what role genetics plays.

Researchers from the United States and England have collaborated to analyze the DNA profiles of thousands of people of diverse ancestry. In doing so, they not only identified new genes that contribute to type 2 diabetes, but also came one step closer to developing a genetic risk score for the disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when a person’s body does not produce enough insulin or does not use insulin effectively, which makes it difficult for the body to regulate blood sugar. It can be life threatening if a person’s blood sugar gets too high or too low.

the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention reports that about 37 million Americans have diabetes, and about 90-95% of those people have type 2 diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, a person with type 2 diabetes may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Increased thirst and hunger
  • Wounds that heal slowly
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent urination

If a person suspects they have type 2 diabetes, they can see their doctor, who can order a blood test to check for the condition.

There is no cure for type 2 diabetes, but people with the disease can manage their blood sugar by taking medication and avoiding foods that raise blood sugar.

Although there is a lot of research on type 2 diabetes, most of it has primarily targeted people of European descent.

“Risk scores derived from one ancestry often don’t transfer well to others,” explained Professor Nathan Tucker in an interview with Medical News Today. “The inclusion of diverse ancestry helps us understand the mechanisms of risk, thereby improving the likelihood of successful therapeutic development.”

Professor Tucker is Assistant Professor and Senior Director of Genetics at the Masonic Medical Research Institute in Utica, NY.

The authors also noted that genetic risk scores “provide an unreliable prediction when deployed in other population groups.”

The researchers accessed data from other studies to create the Consortium Diabetes Meta-Analysis of Trans-Ethnic association studies (DIAMANTE). They analyzed the genetic makeup of 180,834 people with type 2 diabetes and compared it to 1,159,055 people without diabetes.

Scientists categorized people into 1 of 5 groups: European ancestry (51.1%); East Asian ancestry (28.4%); South Asian ancestry (8.3%); African descent (6.6%); and Hispanic ancestry (5.6%).

By comparing the DNA of people with type 2 diabetes to those without, the researchers were able to identify more than 200 genetically significant loci in terms of disease development.

According to National Institute for Human Genome Researcha locus (or plural loci) “is a physical site or location in a genome (such as a gene or other DNA segment of interest).”

“This study identifies 237 genomic regions associated with altered risk for type 2 diabetes, with nearly 100 evidence-based targets that are priorities for next steps in therapeutic development,” explained Professor Tucker.

Researchers have also identified genes that may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.

“We have now identified 117 genes that may cause type 2 diabetes, 40 of which have never been reported before. This is why we believe this is a major step forward in understanding the biology of this disease,” says Professor Anubha Mahajan.

Dr. Mahajan is a human genetics researcher and professor at the University of Oxford in England.

The breadth and diversity of this study creates enormous potential for one day being able to identify a person’s genetic risk for type 2 diabetes.

“The inclusion of diverse ancestry helps us understand the mechanisms of risk, improving the likelihood of successful therapeutic development,” commented Professor Tucker.

Dr. Brian Fertig, Founder and President of the Diabetes and Osteoporosis Center in Piscataway, NJ, also spoke with DTM about the study.

“The results of this study are not surprising because diagnostic and therapeutic stratifications are too often oversimplified as ‘one size fits all,'” Dr. Fertig said.

Dr. Fertig also thought the study underscored the importance of diversity and inclusion in research.

“These data highlight the need for an accurate, personalized and dynamic medicine scale, as it is rare to see two diabetics with the same clinical and biochemical profile,” commented Dr. Fertig. “Every individual is unique and as such should have individualized treatment plans.”