Rethinking Healthcare

Blood test predicts diabetes a decade before symptoms show

Blood test predicts diabetes a decade before symptoms show

Posting in Technology

Raised levels of certain amino acids in the blood flags your risk of developing diabetes later in life.

A simple blood test can spot diabetes a decade before the first symptom's onset.

This risk assessment, based on a handful of amino acids, could screen for type 2 diabetes, scientists believe. Hopefully it’ll be available soon – prediabetes as well as type 2 in people under 20 are both on the rise.

Early warning can help prevent complications like heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and amputation. Aside from keeping an eye on weight and blood sugar, doctors have had little else they can use to identify at risk individuals.

The team studied 2,422 individuals who were followed for 12 years – part of the Framingham Heart Study in the early 1990s. Among them, 201 went on to develop diabetes.

  • They found that the levels of 5 amino acids – isoleucine, leucine, valine, tyrosine and phenylalanine – were strongly linked with diagnoses of diabetes later on.
  • The participants with the highest levels of these metabolites (isoleucine, phenylalanine and tyrosine in particular) in their blood were 4 to 5 times as likely to develop diabetes.
  • Just to be sure, they replicated the results by screening participants from a long term Swedish study, correctly identifying those who went on to develop diabetes.

"These findings could provide insight into metabolic pathways that are altered very early in the process leading to diabetes," says lead author Thomas Wang of Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to study coauthor Robert Gerszten of Mass General, identifying people with higher risk allows early intervention, preventing or delaying the condition with lifestyle changes or the use of drugs.

“We now need to figure out what is the cart and what is the horse,” Gerszten says. “In other words, are these early markers of the disease, or do they participate in the causal pathway that leads to the condition? We are currently investigating this.”

Good thing too, because type 2 diabetes cases in people younger than 20 have ramped up from virtually zero to tens of thousands in the US in little more than a decade. And the number of American adults with prediabetes had jumped from 57 million in 2008 to 79 million in 2010.

LA Times explains:

Just like people with type 2 diabetes, those with prediabetes have high blood sugar levels because their body has become less responsive to insulin, the hormone that keeps blood sugar levels in check, or doesn't produce enough of it. But having prediabetes is not necessarily a guarantee that a person will get type 2 diabetes.

Prediabetes isn’t a disease requiring medical treatment – it’s a wake-up call. As WashPo reports, adults with prediabetes who lost 7% of their body weight reduced their risk of diabetes by 58%.

The study was published in Nature Medicine this week.

Image by Stevpas68 via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure