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Obesity Research: Study Shows Significant Benefits of Modest Weight Loss

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5% weight lossFor the one in three American adults who are obese, recommendations to lose substantial amounts of weight through a combination of diet and exercise can seem daunting and, at times, hopeless. But a new study should come as encouraging news for all those struggling to lose the extra pounds: even a modest goal of 5 percent weight loss delivers considerable health benefits.

In the NIH-funded study, people with obesity who lost just 5 percent of their body weight—about 12 pounds on average—showed improvements in several risk factors for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They also showed metabolic improvements in many parts of the body, including the liver, pancreas, muscle, and fat tissue. While people who lost additional weight enjoyed further improvements in their health, the findings reported in the journal Cell Metabolism show that sometimes it really does pay to start small [1].


Big Data Study Reveals Possible Subtypes of Type 2 Diabetes

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Computational model

Caption: Computational model showing study participants with type 2 diabetes grouped into three subtypes, based on similarities in data contained in their electronic health records. Such information included age, gender (red/orange/yellow indicates females; blue/green, males), health history, and a range of routine laboratory and medical tests.
Credit: Dudley Lab, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how “Big Data” stands to revolutionize biomedical research. Indeed, we’ve already gained many new insights into health and disease thanks to the power of new technologies to generate astonishing amounts of molecular data—DNA sequences, epigenetic marks, and metabolic signatures, to name a few. But what’s often overlooked is the value of combining all that with a more mundane type of Big Data: the vast trove of clinical information contained in electronic health records (EHRs).

In a recent study in Science Translational Medicine  [1], NIH-funded researchers demonstrated the tremendous potential of using EHRs, combined with genome-wide analysis, to learn more about a common, chronic disease—type 2 diabetes. Sifting through the EHR and genomic data of more than 11,000 volunteers, the researchers uncovered what appear to be three distinct subtypes of type 2 diabetes. Not only does this work have implications for efforts to reduce this leading cause of death and disability, it provides a sneak peek at the kind of discoveries that will be made possible by the new Precision Medicine Initiative’s national research cohort, which will enroll 1 million or more volunteers who agree to share their EHRs and genomic information.


Blood Sugar Control for Diabetes: Asking the Heart Questions

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Glucose testing

Credit: Thinkstock

When most people think about risk factors for cardiovascular disease, they likely think of blood pressure readings or cholesterol levels. But here’s something else that should be high on that list: diabetes. That’s because people with diabetes are roughly twice as likely to die of heart disease than other folks [1]. Yet the issue of how best to help such people lower their cardiovascular risks remains a matter of intense debate. Some studies have suggested that part of the answer may lie in tightly controlling blood sugar (glucose) levels with a strict regimen of medications and monitoring [2]. Other research has shown that the intense effort needed to keep blood glucose levels under tight control might not be worth it and may even make things worse for certain individuals [3].

Now, a follow up of a large, clinical trial involving nearly 1,800 U.S. military veterans with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of diabetes—provides further evidence that tight blood glucose control may indeed protect the cardiovascular system. Reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine [4], researchers found a significant reduction in a composite measure of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and circulation-related amputations among the vets who maintained tight glucose control for about five and a half years on average. What’s particularly encouraging is most of the cardiovascular-protective benefit appears to be achievable through relatively modest, rather than super strict, reductions in blood glucose levels.


Taking a New Look at Artificial Sweeteners

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Packets of artificial sweetenersDiet sodas and other treats sweetened with artificial sweeteners are often viewed as guilt-free pleasures. Because such foods are usually lower in calories than those containing natural sugars, many have considered them a good option for people who are trying to lose weight or keep their blood glucose levels in check. But some surprising new research suggests that artificial sweeteners might actually do the opposite, by changing the microbes living in our intestines [1].

To explore the impact of various kinds of sweeteners on the zillions of microbes living in the human intestine (referred to as the gut microbiome), an Israeli research team first turned to mice. One group of mice was given water that contained one of two natural sugars: glucose or sucrose; the other group received water that contained one of three artificial sweeteners: saccharin (the main ingredient in Sweet’N Low®), sucralose (Splenda®), or aspartame (Equal®, Nutrasweet®). Both groups ate a diet of normal mouse chow.


Global Health: Time to Pay Attention to Chronic Diseases

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Graph of projected deaths by cause in low income countries

Caption: Projected deaths (in millions) by cause in low-income countries. Note increase in non-communicable diseases (orange).
Credit: Adapted from Beaglehole R, Bonita R. Lancet. 2008 Dec 6;372(9654):1988-96.

Greetings from China. I’m here in Shanghai with other biomedical research leaders for two major meetings. The first one, which is the topic of my blog today, is on global health. So, you might expect there to be a lot of talk about malaria, influenza, MERS-CoV, Ebola virus, sleeping sickness, dengue fever, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases. And those are most certainly topics of intense interest to NIH and our colleagues around the world. But this particular meeting is about a different kind of global health threat that’s becoming a rapidly growing problem: chronic diseases.

While infectious diseases remain a significant problem in the developing world, cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases are now among the fastest growing causes of death and disability around the globe. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the 38 million people who died of chronic diseases in 2012 lived in low- or middle-income countries [1].


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