Researchers uncover single gene associated with type 2 diabetes risk

A complex combination of genetic and environmental factors is known to lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. Obesity is the leading risk factor for the condition, which is brought on by overeating. Yet some people who are overweight never develop metabolic problems. This suggests that interpreting the interplay between genes and environment is key to understanding and preventing diabetes.

While the environmental factors that contribute to diabetes - namely a high-fat diet and obesity - are well established, doctors know less about the genetic factors that increase susceptibility. While certain genetic regions have been linked to the condition, no researcher up to this point has been able to pinpoint a single gene that contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes.

However, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin may have discovered one particular gene that may play an important role in type 2 diabetes susceptibility. They said their findings have the potential to lead to new tests that identify individuals at risk for developing the condition and new medications that treat this elevated risk.

In studying mice, the researchers found that one gene in particular encodes a protein that regulates the production of insulin in the pancreas. Any abnormality in the gene leads to an improper balance of the protein and an unregulated metabolic system.

They reported in the journal PLoS Genetics that the protein tomosyn-2 acts as a brake on insulin production. This prevents the body from producing too much of the hormone, which could cause blood sugar levels to drop to unhealthy levels. In people with normal genes, this protein is only activated when glucose levels drop too far.

"You can imagine that if you're in a fasted state, you don't want to increase your insulin, so it's very important to have a brake on insulin secretion," said Angie Oler, one of the lead researchers on the study. "It needs to be stopped when you're not eating and it needs to start again when you do eat."

However, for those with the genetic abnormality identified by the study, tomosyn-2 levels fluctuate, resulting in poor regulation of blood sugar levels.

The researchers said that one genetic variation likely does not account for an individual's entire susceptibility to type 2 diabetes. However, their study did show a strong correlation between the gene they identified and metabolic risk. This could lead to new tests and medications to treat genetic risk factors.

Additionally, it could help medical professionals understand the interplay between environmental and genetic factors, which could play an important role in their ability to make personalized treatment and lifestyle recommendations for their patients.

The best known way to prevent type 2 diabetes is to adopt a healthy lifestyle. This means avoiding obesity by eating sensibly and getting plenty of exercise. However, knowing that genes also play such an important role in developing the condition may help doctors identify individuals for whom living this type of lifestyle is most important.