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Vital Signs

Winter 2010

Diabetes Risk an Inherited Trait


VS Winter 2010 - Diabetes RiskWhile diabetes affects more than 23 million Americans, the good news is that it will appear only in people who are genetically predisposed to the disease, experts say. The bad news is that about 20 percent of the population may be at risk.

“Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have a hereditary component,” says Peter Butler, M.D., chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension, and director of the Larry L. Hillblom Islet Research Center at UCLA. “Previously, many people with type 2 diabetes felt guilty about their disease because they believed they caused it by the way they lived their lives. But while many of us eat too much or don’t exercise enough, we now appreciate it is only those with a genetic predisposition who may develop the disease. We also understand that in these individuals, diabetes develops because the cells that make insulin in the islets are gradually lost.”

And while most people who have a genetic predisposition won’t ever develop diabetes, scientists are working to understand why it appears in some individuals but not in others.Evidence that hereditary islet cell dysfunction is the main culprit in causing type 2 diabetes — which was first published by UCLA researchers — is important, Dr. Butler says, because it helps to focus research in this area.

Dr. Butler leads a multidisciplinary team of UCLA scientists in the Larry L. Hillblom Islet Research Center, which was built specifically for the purpose of bringing together the diverse expertise necessary to conduct basic science and translational research focused on understanding how to prevent islet cell destruction and, ideally, how to reverse it.

“People who have longstanding diabetes continue to make islet cells throughout their lives, but the cells are destroyed again,” Dr. Butler says. “It’s like trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. We need to understand both how to help make new cells, but also how to prevent the cells that are created from being destroyed.”

As researchers at UCLA and across the globe work to understand and eventually find a cure for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, Dr. Butler emphasizes that healthy lifestyle choices — particularly taking steps to curb obesity — remain important in controlling the disease. “If you become obese, your pancreas has to work harder to produce insulin, and if you’re among the 20 percent of people who have inherited the genes that increase your risk for diabetes, you are at relatively high risk of developing the disease,” he says.

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