MAR 07, 2024 8:00 AM PST

Gene Clusters Found to Identify Ancestral Differences in Type 2 Diabetes Symptoms


  • Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University found gene clusters that could help explain how type 2 diabetes presents in different patients.
  • Identified gene clusters were indicative of various biological mechanism associated with ancestry of patients.
  • The discovery helps physicians better understand the differences in type 2 diabetes clinical presentation in patients across populations.

Millions of Americans are affected by diabetes. Unfortunately, the number of cases continue to rise each year. Diabetes is a chronic health condition associated with how the body transforms food into energy. After food consumption, the body sends signals to the pancreas to make in insulin, which alerts the use of glucose in the cells to make energy. For diabetic patients, not enough insulin is made and leads to increased blood sugar. Consequently, increased sugar in the blood can lead to detrimental long-term effects including heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease. There are three different types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational (diabetes while pregnant). Type 1 and type 2 are the most common out of the three. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not make enough insulin and is usually associated with children. Type 2 diabetes is the most prevalent and occurs when the body does not properly respond to insulin, also called “insulin resistance”.  Unfortunately, there is no cure for diabetes and the best form of treatment is symptom management through diet, artificial insulin intake, and other medications. Researchers are currently working to understand what causes diabetes and how different symptoms can assess risk.

A recent article in Nature Medicine by Dr. Miriam Udler and others demonstrated that gene clusters were associated with clinical presentation differences in type 2 diabetes. Udler is the Director of the MGH Diabetes Genetics Clinic and is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her work focuses on endocrine disorders, particularly type 2 diabetes. Udler and others analyzed 1.4 million individuals from various genetic ancestral backgrounds. The ancestral background consisted of African/African American, Admixed American, East Asian, European, South Asian, and multi-ancestral ancestry. Interestingly, the team found 650 genetic variants that were associated with type 2 diabetes. Further analysis indicated a total of 110 of those genetic variants were related to type 2 clinical symptoms.

The discovery uncovered gene clusters associated with low cholesterol, abnormal metabolism, and abnormal lipid processing. Researchers also found that these genetic clusters help to distinguish type 2 diabetes between different ancestral populations. Udler and others found two genetic clusters associated with body fat use and storage that were able to explain the increased risk for type 2 diabetes in self-identified non-white populations with a given body mass index (BMI). Additionally, the same clusters confirmed risk for type 2 diabetes at lower BMI levels in those of East Asian ancestry. This work is powerful because it can help assess risk and explain differences in type 2 diabetes across populations. The research also identifies the genetic underpinnings of disease that could guide curative or improved therapeutic treatments. Overall, this discovery better informs physicians on how to better treat patients, provide better quality of life, and extend survival.

Article, Nature Medicine, Miriam Udler, MGH, Diabetes Genetics Clinic, Harvard Medical School

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Greetings! I am a predoctoral trainee in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. I am passionate about tumor immunology, and hope to one day become an independent principal investigator.
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