Metabolic genetics research may pave the way to treating diabetes, obesity

Oct. 22, 2014

Breaking down complex conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity into the specific metabolic proteins and processes that underlie them offers a new approach to studying the genetics of these diseases and how they are interrelated, according to research presented at the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) 2014 Annual Meeting in San Diego, which concludes today.

By studying specific proteins that contribute to such conditions—and the genes that encode them—scientists can develop new drugs that directly target the metabolic processes that do not function properly, explains lead study author Jennifer E. Below, PhD, of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health.

Working with colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Chicago, Dr. Below found that genes that regulate people’s circadian cycle affect quality of sleep but could also put them at risk for diabetes. Similarly, researchers learned, a group of related proteins involved in immune system functions and interactions among cells also plays a role in heart health.

The researchers have focused their efforts in Starr County, Texas, a community where trends in obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates have steadily remained about 30 years ahead of the rest of the country. They have sequenced the genomes of more than 1,400 people in Starr County, studying relationships among many traits that affect obesity and diabetes, such as weight, sleep patterns, heart health, eye health, immune function, fat levels, and blood pressure. This allows them to tease apart the roles of lifestyle and environmental factors, including how these traits may affect one another.

In the future, Dr. Below and colleagues plan to study families in order to analyze rare genetic variants that may be present in larger numbers than in the general population, some of which may have a major effect on disease. Read the study abstract.

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