MAR 23, 2021 7:50 PM PDT

One Metabolic Problem May Cause Multiple Diseases

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Patients with a disease often see specialists, and there may not be much communication among them when individuals suffer from multiple disorders. But new research has suggested that some people may benefit from a more comprehensive approach to dealing with several health problems. Scientists have found that many elderly people who suffer from several diseases, a condition known as multimorbidity, may have common threads underlying their issues.

Image credit: Pixabay

Reporting in Nature Medicine, a team of researchers assessed health data for 27 diseases and biomarker levels from over 11,000 people that volunteered for the EPIC-Norfolk prospective cohort study. Biomarkers included metabolites like vitamins, fats, sugars, and metabolic byproducts, which can depend on genetic and environmental factors. Their work determined that some metabolic processes are connected to more than one disorder; in the case of one metabolic pathway, there were links to as many as fourteen different diseases.

"We wanted to know whether there are certain markers in the blood that indicate a risk, not only for one but for several diseases at the same time," said study leader Dr. Claudia Langenberg, Professor of Computational Medicine at BIH at Charité.

This study was performed on blood samples that had been taken from the participants 20 years ago when they were more or less healthy. Then a record of the health conditions they developed over the next 20 years was diligently recorded.

"This allowed us to explore how the concentration of hundreds of molecules in the blood is linked to the development of one or multiple diseases," Langenberg explained.

The researchers found that the presence of many metabolites linked to disease could be explained by obesity, chronic inflammation, or impairments in kidney and liver function. However, the level of diversity in the gut microbiome was found to affect the levels of metabolites in the blood too. The microbiome could provide insight into disease development, they determined.

Most (two-thirds) of the molecules that were assessed were linked to an increase or decrease in the risks of more than one disease, which were sometimes very different from one another. This suggests that single metabolic pathways can affect multiple health conditions.

"We found, for example, that an increased concentration of the sugar-like molecule N-acetylneuraminate increased the risk of no less than fourteen diseases," noted lead study author and scientist Maik Pietzner. "Gamma-glutamylglycine, on the other hand, is exclusively associated with the occurrence of diabetes. Other members of the same molecular groups simultaneously increase the risk of liver and heart disease."

"Overall, we observed that two-thirds of the molecules are associated with the occurrence of more than one disease," added Langenberg. "This is in line with the fact that patients often develop a range of diseases in the course of their lives. If we succeed in influencing these key factors, this could make it possible to counter multiple diseases simultaneously."

The results from this work as being made publicly available at

"The website enables scientists to determine key influencing factors for any molecule they are interested in or to uncover completely new connections between diseases. All of this was only possible due to our systematic, data-driven approach," added Langenberg.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via BIH at Charité, Nature Medicine

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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