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Novel research links environmental factors and diabetes

The analysis exposed quite a few chemicals responsible for type 2 diabetes. Unexpectedly, gamma tocopherol, a form of vitamin E found in oil and nuts was related to higher fasting blood sugar levels.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine can claim to have developed a novel method to decipher which foreign chemicals concur with complex diseases in the body.

The team of researchers carried out a, only one of its kind, analysis of 266 probable environmental contributors and established an association between several pollutants and type 2 diabetes.

The study also, for the first time, points towards a form of vitamin E as a possible risk factor for the lethal disease.

Environment-wide association study
"The whole inspiration was to do for the environment what has been done for genetics," said Atul Butte, who is a pediatrician and computer scientist at Stanford Medical School and an author of the study.

Butte, along with his graduate student Chirag Patel, and Stanford professor of medicine Jayanta Bhattacharya, envisaged an “environment-wide association study,” similar to genome-wide association studies that researchers normally undertake.

To find genetic causes of a disease, researchers usually identify genetic markers present in people afflicted by the disease but absent in others. Butte led team mimicked the same approach for environmental factors.

The researchers correlated each unspecified test subject's fasting blood sugar level with the levels of 266 chemicals detected in blood and urine.

“Genetics is certainly a hot field, but so far genome-wide association studies have not explained a large amount of the risk for type 2 diabetes and other diseases,” averred Butte.

“So we decided to borrow the concept of the genome-wide association study and apply it to the environment,” Butte said of the research methodology.

"This is a very valuable first approach. It will need to be replicated. One caveat is that you can only discover factors that are present in the data set to begin with," said Rochelle Long, program director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

The findings
The analysis exposed quite a few chemicals responsible for type 2 diabetes. Unexpectedly, gamma tocopherol, a form of vitamin E found in oil and nuts was related to higher fasting blood sugar levels.

Heightened presence of polychlorinated biphenyls also concurred with elevated fasting blood sugar levels.

"It's reassuring that we found some correlations that we were expecting to find. But there were many more surprises than reassurances," Butte said of the study findings.

"This is a very valuable first approach. It will need to be replicated. One caveat is that you can only discover factors that are present in the data set to begin with," said Rochelle Long, program director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 23.6 million people in the United States are afflicted by Type 2 diabetes.

The findings of the study have been published Thursday in the open-access journal 'PLOS One.'