Novel method measures markers for pre-diabetes

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published November 2, 2015

Key Takeaways

Researchers have discovered that certain fatty acids can be used as biomarkers to identify metabolic syndrome. This discovery, if confirmed, would allow physicians to warn patients years before the onset of diabetes.

“Currently, there are no clinical tests that predict the likelihood of developing diabetes, only exams that can tell, for example, if someone that is pre-diabetic has relatively high blood sugar or insulin levels,” said Wei Jia, PhD, Director of the University of Hawai'i Cancer Center’s Metabolomics Shared Resources program, in Honolulu, HI.

“To know if you are likely to get diabetes in a few years is an important discovery," Dr. Jia added. "People can hopefully get tested for the disease during physical exams in the future.”

These fatty acids can change 10 years before an individual is diagnosed with diabetes. So, a clinical test indicating a higher risk for diabetes could encourage an improvement in lifestyle patterns and potentially avoid the diagnosis of a chronic disease, the researchers suggested. Their study was published online September 11, 2015 in the journal EBioMedicine.

“If people know they are specifically pre-diabetic, they can have a more targeted way of treating it,” Dr. Jia said.

Results from previous epidemiologic studies have suggested that individuals with higher plasma concentrations of free fatty acids (FFA) were at increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

In this study, Dr. Jia and his research team—in collaboration with scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University Affiliated 6th People’s Hospital, in Shanghai, China—conducted a metabolomics analysis of 452 people who participated in 4 independent studies. 

The researchers reviewed a cross-sectional study with metabolically healthy and unhealthy obese subjects, a longitudinal study to observe the occurrence of developing pre-diabetes over as long as 10 years, and two studies to evaluate the therapeutic effects on subjects who underwent metabolic surgery or received a very low carbohydrate diet for 8 weeks.

“It is conventionally assumed that if people are obese, they are [at] risk of being pre-diabetic,” Dr. Jia said. “However, sometimes people who are obese can still be healthy.”

Obesity is not a homogeneous condition, the researchers noted. About 25% to 40% of obese individuals can maintain healthy status with no apparent signs of metabolic complications.

After analyzing the data, the researchers identified a group of unsaturated fatty acids (UFAs) that were closely correlated with metabolic status in two groups of obese individuals who underwent weight loss intervention; these UFAs can predict the recurrence of diabetes at 2 years after metabolic surgery, the researchers found.

In addition, two UFAs—dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid and palmitoleic acid—were able to predict the future development of metabolic syndrome in a group of obese subjects.

The researchers are now pursuing studies to examine the association between FFA profiles and inflammatory markers, with a goal of a developing a clinical test for physicians.

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