A test to detect diabetes up to 10 years before the first symptoms appear could soon emerge from preliminary research showing that it is possible to find changes in the blood of people who go on to develop the disease.
US scientists believe they have found a way of identifying people who will suffer from type-2 diabetes by looking at changes to a group of certain chemical metabolites present in their bloodstream which can be linked with the disorder, caused by a failure of the insulin hormone.
Type-2 diabetes, which affects about 2.5 million people in Britain, is one of the country's fastest-growing health problems and is linked with a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet and obesity. However, the condition can go undiagnosed for many years by which time half of sufferers have already experience complications.
An early test would mean that people could be diagnosed before complications develop and thus could be targeted with the appropriate health advice and medical treatment, scientists said. "Early diagnosis and effective management of type-2 diabetes are crucial in reducing the risk of developing diabetes complications, such as heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness and amputation. Therefore finding ways to identify those at risk of developing the condition are important," said Victoria King, head of research at the charity Diabetes UK.
The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, was carried out on the children of the original participants of the Framingham heart study, which tracked thousands of Americans over their lifetime in order to investigate the possible causes of ill health. These children entered the Framingham offspring study between 1991 and 1995.
Scientists from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston identified 189 people within this group who had developed type-2 diabetes and compared their blood samples today with blood samples taken and stored at the beginning of the study. The researchers analysed the samples for the presence of chemical metabolites – simple molecules involved in body metabolism – and compared them with samples taken from people without diabetes.
They found that high levels of five amino acids, in particular combinations, were significantly linked with the development of type-2 diabetes. Those people with the highest levels of the three most predictive amino acids were between four and five times at greater risk of developing the condition than those with the lowest levels.
"These findings could provide insight into metabolic pathways that are altered very early in the process leading to diabetes. They also raise the possibility that, in selected individuals, these measurements could identify those at highest risk of developing diabetes so that early preventive measures could be instituted," said Thomas Wang, of Massachusetts General.