Could a New Epigenetic Blood Test Predict Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes?

diabetes epigenetic blood test

Diabetes is a disease characterized by the body’s inability to properly use insulin and it affects over 29 million Americans. With new epigenetic research, however, the disease may be mitigated with a simple blood test that offers early knowledge and the possibility for pre-emptive lifestyle management. Lund University researchers in Sweden published their study in Nature Communications, in which they discovered a novel biomarker to predict a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. By using a blood test to noninvasively measure epigenetic changes, specifically, DNA methylation, of particular genes related to diabetes, they could determine whether someone is likely to develop the disease in the future and give them enough time to adjust their daily habits.

Recently, research has uncovered an epigenetic link to diabetes. For example, one study from the long-term diaBEAT-it program connected mitochondrial DNA methylation to insulin resistance in pre-diabetics. Another showed that metabolic consequences of mom and dad’s dietary habits may be inherited by their kids via epigenetic mechanisms and could possibly cause the child to develop diabetes. Similarly, a study asked if stressed fathers could epigenetically give their children high blood sugar later in life.

In this study, researchers measured the amount of DNA methylation of four specific genes to predict the risk of type 2 diabetes long before it presents itself. These genes included FHL2, ZNF518B, GNPNAT1 and HLTF. Although they knew measuring blood glucose level average, HbA1C, over a period of time has been widely used to predict one’s likelihood of developing the disease, they wanted to improve upon the predictive potential and enhance the existing method.

“The hope is that this will be developed into a better way to predict the disease,” said the first author of the paper and researcher at Lund University, Karl Bacos. “This could motivate a person at risk to change their lifestyle.”

The team first started studying insulin-producing beta cells collected from deceased individuals. Depending on how old the donor was, they discovered that the DNA methylation level of four genes increased. These epigenetic changes were proven to have a positive effect on insulin secretion when copied in cultured beta cells.

Karl Bacos said, “We could then see the same DNA methylation changes in the blood which was really cool.”

Next, blood samples were studied from participants belonging to Danish and Finnish research projects and then compared with blood samples collected from these same participants after ten years. Of the Finnish individuals, those who had higher DNA methylation levels initially saw a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes after ten years. Of the Danish individuals who had higher DNA methylation levels, insulin secretion was found to be higher after ten years. The researchers found that a third of the Finnish individuals went on to develop type 2 diabetes whereas all Danish individuals were healthy at the beginning and the end.

Research project manager and professor, Charlotte Ling, explained, “Increased insulin secretion actually protects against type 2 diabetes. It could be the body’s way of protecting itself when other tissue becomes resistant to insulin, which often happens as we get older.”

The researchers want to expand on this study that utilizes only a small group of people and a selection of genes. In the future, they aim to use genome-wide sequencing to analyze epigenetic marks in a larger collection of people. These preliminary findings, in conjunction with future research, could ultimately lead to the development of a blood test to assess diabetes risk.


Source: Bacos, K., et al. (2016). Blood-based biomarkers of age-associated epigenetic changes in human islets associate with insulin secretion and diabetes. Nature Communications, 7: 11089.

Reference: Lund University. New method measures the risk of type 2 diabetes in blood. Lund University News. Mar 31 2016. Web.

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About Bailey Kirkpatrick 164 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology with a passion for conveying scientific concepts to the wider community. She enjoys speculating about the implications of epigenetics and how it might impact our perception of wellbeing and the development of novel preventative strategies. When she’s not combing through research articles, she also enjoys discovering new foods, taking nighttime strolls, and discussing current events over a barrel-aged sour beer or cold-brewed coffee.


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