Researchers in Sweden have identified a new way to predict risk of type 2 diabetes many years before a typical diabetes diagnosis is made.
Anders Rosengre, of the Lund University Diabetes Centre (LUDC), and colleagues, say they have shown that people with “above-average levels of a protein called SFRP4 in the blood are five times more likely to develop diabetes in the next few years than those with below-average levels”.
The finding comes from studies that compared insulin-producing beta cells from people with diabetes with those from non-diabetic individuals. The LUDC researchers found that cells from diabetics have significantly higher levels of the SFRP4 protein, which plays a role in inflammatory processes in the body.
The team then measured levels of SFRP4 in the blood of non-diabetics three times every three years and discovered that over a third (37 per cent) of those with higher concentrations developed type 2 diabetes during the study, compared with just nine per cent of those with lower-than-average levels.
According to Rosengre, this makes the protein a “strong risk marker” that is present in the bloodstream several years before diagnosis. In addition, the marker works independently of other known risk factors for type 2 diabetes such as obesity.
“If we can point to an increased risk of diabetes in a middle-aged individual of normal weight using a simple blood test, up to ten years before the disease develops, this could provide strong motivation to them to improve their lifestyle to reduce the risk,” Rosengren said.
“In the long term, our findings could also lead to new methods of treating type 2 diabetes by developing ways of blocking the protein SFRP4 in the insulin-producing beta cells and reducing inflammation, thereby protecting the cells.”
The findings, published in recent issue of Cell Metabolism, mark the first time scientists have established a link between SFRP4 and diabetes risk, as well as the first link between the metabolic disease and inflammation in beta cells – inflammation is believed to weaken these pancreatic cells and prevent them from producing sufficient insulin.

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