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Genetics and Diabetes

Each cell in the human body contains genes and around 20,000 of these are protein-coding. These genes are inherited from the parents and are similar to a blueprint since the human body will produce proteins and control its structure and functions based on this “blueprint.” Since there are variations among individual’s genes, they enable us to be different in appearance and physique.


Understanding Genes and Diabetes

As technology advances, human has been trying to decode this genetic blueprint and studying genes and their relationship with diabetes and related diseases. Evidence from studies show that if an individual’s direct relatives (e.g., parents, siblings) have Type 2 diabetes, they are up to 3 times more likely than others to get it later in life. Studies also find that some genetic variations in individuals may affect the development of the pancreas, the generation and secretion of insulin, and the sensitivity of cells to insulin.

Currently, diabetes genetic studies have discovered over 400 genetic variations associated with Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes and its complications are caused by multiple genetic changes. However, not all genetic variations will cause disease instantly, other risk factors of diabetes also contribute to our well-being. In addition, studies from foreign countries find that among different races, their diabetes-related genes are also different. These variations can lead to different incidence of diabetes in different groups of people. Using Asia as an example, 1 in 5 of Chinese patients with diabetes have onset of their disease before 40 years of age and it is probably associated with race-related genes.


Cause of Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes results from genetic and variable risk factors. If an individual naturally has multiple high-risk genes and is also affected by adverse environmental factors (e.g. obese, smoking, etc.) these factors will all increase the risk of developing diabetes. If there, is a delay in diagnosis and treatment because the symptoms of diabetes are not obvious, the risk of complications will be increased especially if the individual also carriers high-risk genes for complication. On the contrary, if one has a limited number of high-risk genes and cares about one’s health as well as is aware of the risks, then this individual has a relatively lower chance of developing diabetes. Although genes are irreversible, variable risk factors (such as weight, smoking) can be changed to reduce the risk. Therefore, the earlier you know about your genetic risk and physical conditions, the better you can prevent yourself from developing diabetes.

True or False Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is mainly due to the immune system attacking islet cells which will result in increased blood sugar due to the insufficient production of insulin. Studies also find that multiple genes are associated with Type 1 diabetes and the functions of these genes are mostly related to the immune system. Another subtype of diabetes, namely “Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young (MODY)”, is induced by a single gene mutation.

Similar to Type 1 diabetes, MODY patients usually show onset of symptoms from a young age. Since both forms of diabetes exist in young people, young “MODY” patients may be misdiagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and receive therapies for Type 1 diabetes with unsatisfactory treatment results.

Understanding Precision Medicine

The study of genetic blueprints not only can analyze different types of diabetes, the genome can also provide indicators regarding the effectiveness and serious side effects associated with common drugs. In the past when we wanted to know the effectiveness of a particular drug on an individual, it took quite some time to observe its benefits and side effects, and only then would the type of drug and dosage be adjusted according to the situation.

However, with the help of genetic information, more precise decisions can be made to avoid using drugs with poor or undesirable results, and we can personalize a medical plan. We believe in the near future, medical staff can use genetic tests as a common practice to perform risk prediction for people who are at a higher risk of developing diabetes and personalize their treatment to maximize benefits and minimize harm.

Once diagnosed, diabetes patients can be better classified with the correct type and/or subtype using genetic information, Their conditions can be better assessed, and a management plan of precise treatment can be applied to reduce complications. For further information about genetics and diabetes, please seek professional medical advice and consult a doctor.

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