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Experts shed light on diabetes risk for South Asians

1st April 2013


University of Glasgow academics have discovered one of the reasons why people of South Asian origin are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The new finding, published today in the journal PLoS ONE, is one which researchers hope will pave way for more studies into this area of type 2 diabetes.

According to lead author Dr Jason Gill, of the University’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, South Asian muscles have a lower capacity to burn fat than Europeans which means they are more insulin resistant and so at greater risk of developing diabetes.

Dr Gill explained: “We already know that people of South Asian origin living in the UK have much more diabetes than people of White European origin, and develop the disease at a younger age. This is partly due to the fact that South Asians carry more fat, particularly in the tummy area, than Europeans.  However, this greater level of body fat does not fully explain the increased insulin resistance and diabetes risk observed in this group.

“Our results suggest that the ability of South Asians’ muscles to use fat as a fuel is lower than in Europeans. This  reduced ability to burn fat is linked to increased insulin resistance. In other words, if a South Asian man and a European man were walking alongside each other at the same speed, the South Asian man’s muscles would be burning less fat and this may contribute to a greater risk of developing diabetes.

“The good news is that regular exercise improves the ability of muscles to burn fat, so taking regular physical activity may be particularly important for South Asians to reduce their insulin resistance and minimise their diabetes risk.”

The findings can found in full in “Fat Oxidation, Fitness and Skeletal Muscle Expression of Oxidative/Lipid Metabolism Genes in South Asians: Implications for Insulin Resistance?”

The work was jointly funded by Diabetes UK and the Translational Medicine Research Collaboration.

Dr Victoria King, Head of Research at Diabetes UK, added: “We have known for some time that South Asian people have up to a six-fold increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Although we think this could be due to increased body fat and this fat being more likely to be stored around the abdomen, these factors can only explain part of the increased risk we see.

"This very insightful and novel research, that Diabetes UK is pleased to have supported, suggests that the skeletal muscle of South Asian people is less able to use fatty acids and burns less fat during exercise and that these factors contribute significantly to the insulin resistance we see in South Asian people. This new insight could provide the basis for future studies looking at lifestyle or drug interventions to enhance the uptake and burning of fat in muscles, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes in this high risk group."




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