Understanding early indicators for diabetes in young healthy adults

Associate Professor Chris Shaw explored diabetes risk in its earliest stages, in a project funded by the Diabetes Australia Research Program.

A team of researchers led by Associate Professor Shaw noticed that a proportion of healthy, young individuals have high insulin levels in the blood, even though they are not obese, have normal blood glucose levels and are free from existing metabolic disease. 

“We wanted to understand why certain individuals have these high insulin levels, despite being otherwise healthy, and investigating what impact high insulin levels have on the body’s tendency to store fat, gain weight and their risk of developing diabetes and other diseases in the future,” he explained. 

For the project, Associate Professor Shaw screened several hundred non-obese people aged 18 to 35 years using an oral glucose tolerance test. This test is used clinically to screen for the presence of diabetes, or diabetes risk, and will identify those individuals with normal blood glucose levels. 

From this initial screen, Associate Professor Shaw identified two groups – those with normal insulin levels and those with high insulin levels in the blood. 

He then examined their ability to secrete insulin and explored the impact this had on the body’s tissues, particularly, their fat stores. 

Associate Professor Shaw explained that high insulin levels in the blood (termed hyperinsulinemia) is linked with increased prevalence of obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes as well as other diseases including coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension and cancer. Usually, the development of these diseases occurs over decades and clinical features only become apparent once the disease is firmly established and difficult to reverse. 

“Our work is significant as we think individuals with high insulin levels are at the earliest stages of diabetes, which may not become apparent until many years into the future,” Associate Professor Shaw said. 

“Almost 2 million Australians have diabetes, and the cost impact is estimated at $14.6 billion, so there is an urgent and growing need to improve ways to prevent and treat the disease.” 

Associate Professor Shaw aims to use information gleaned from the study  to identify and treat individuals before diabetes and related chronic diseases fully develop, ultimately lowering the incidence and impact of these diseases. 

“This work will also help determine whether therapeutic approaches should be developed to specifically target people with high insulin levels in the blood,” he said.