WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A protein made in the liver may give doctors a way to predict years in advance who is at high risk for the most common form of diabetes, a U.S. study published on Tuesday said.
Studying people in their 70s, the researchers found those with high levels of a protein known as fetuin-A were far more likely than those with low levels to develop type 2 diabetes over six years.
Fetuin-A is made by liver cells and may be involved in the metabolism of the sugar glucose as well as calcium, the researchers said. Type 2 diabetes is marked by high levels of glucose, the body's source of energy, in the blood.
Type 2 diabetes is the form closely linked to obesity and it has become more common worldwide. But not all obese people develop diabetes and scientists are eager to determine who might be at particular risk.
"It might ultimately be useful to use this (fetuin-A) for screening and identifying people at higher risk for diabetes," Dr. Joachim Ix of the University of California at San Diego and the San Diego Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, who led the study, said in a telephone interview.
A blood test for levels of the protein may be a promising way to assess type 2 diabetes risk and the need for steps to prevent development, Ix said.
"It might be that using medications that control glucose earlier might actually prevent diabetes in those people," Ix said.
"It might be that if you identify people at higher risk, they may be more motivated to do things like diet and exercise that are known to be important in preventing development of diabetes."
Of the 519 people in the study, those in the highest third for blood levels of the protein were about 2-1/2 times as likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those in the lowest third, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The link between levels of the protein and diabetes risk remained even when factoring out weight, amount of exercise, sex or race, the researchers said.
People with type 2 diabetes are resistant to the effects of insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas that regulates the absorption of sugar by the cells, or they make insufficient amounts of insulin to keep a normal glucose level.
Diabetes can damage the eyes, kidneys and nerves and lead to heart disease, stroke and limb amputation.
Fetuin-A, which makes the body less sensitive to insulin, also could be the target of future drugs aimed at preventing or treating diabetes, Ix said.
Ix said it is likely that blood levels of fetuin-A might also help to predict diabetes in middle-aged people.
Editing by Maggie Fox and John O'Callaghan