South Asian diabetes risk

Poressor Jaspal Kooner

Professor Jaspal Kooner, Imperial College London

Type 2 diabetes is much more common in the South Asian community than the rest of the population but it’s not clear why. Researchers are hunting for genes that might explain why South Asians are at increased risk.

Risk of type 2 diabetes by ethnicity

Rates of diabetes differ between ethnic groups and the UK South Asian population is more than twice as likely to have diabetes compared to the general population. The risk of type 2 diabetes can be increased by an unhealthy diet and being physically inactive but we know that genetics also contribute. Diabetes increases someone’s risk of heart disease by 50 per cent.

“As a consultant cardiologist in West London nearly 20 years ago, I noticed highly disproportionate levels of diabetes in my South Asian patients,” said Professor Jaspal Kooner who recently led a study, part-funded by us, into the genetics of South Asians with diabetes.

“This observation prompted me to start researching the causes, including the genetics.”

The Lolipop Study

Professor Kooner launched the Lolipop Study where he and his colleagues followed the health of 30,000 South Asian volunteers from West London over the past decade.

By observing these people over the long-term, the researchers have learnt a lot about the causes of ill health.

We have learnt more about behavioural causes of heart disease and diabetes

Professor Jaspal Kooner
Imperial College London

“Through Lolipop, we have learnt more about behavioural causes of heart disease and diabetes such as the influence of bad diet and lack of exercise but now, thanks to advances in technology and collaborations with researchers from different fields, we are learning about the genetic causes too,” said Professor Kooner.

Looking for clues in the genes

In recent research the scientists did something called a genome wide association study (GWAS).

This is a technique used to identify genes involved in a disease – in this case type 2 diabetes. The scientists compared the genetic codes of tens of thousands of South Asians who developed type 2 diabetes with those who didn’t and searched for minor genetic variations more common in the diabetics.

“GWAS identified six new genes linked to type 2 diabetes but we later discovered these were not unique to South Asians so we’re still looking,” said Professor Kooner. “Previous work has shown that it isn’t environmental factors causing this increased risk and so far the genetic clues have proved hard to find.”

Once the researchers find these elusive genes they hope to start identifying people at risk of diabetes earlier and then take steps to reduce that risk.

Find out more about the work of the Centre on the Centre for Research Excellence, Imperial College website.

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