Researchers have identified gene variants that boost the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease -- the leading cause of global morbidity and mortality, a finding that points to potential targets for common drugs.
While the study confirmed most of the known diabetes "risk loci"-- sites on the genome where small DNA variations have been linked to altered, usually higher diabetes risk -- the researchers also uncovered 16 new risk factors.
The researchers also identified eight specific gene variants that are strongly linked to altered risk for both diseases.
"Identifying these gene variants linked to both Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease risk in principle opens up opportunities to lower the risk of both outcomes with a single drug," said co-senior author Danish Saleheen, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
"From a drug development perspective, it would make sense to focus on those pathways that are most strongly linked to both diseases."
Seven of these gene variants, as expected, appeared to increase risk for both Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease risk.
The eighth, a variant of the gene for the cholesterol-transport protein ApoE, turned out to be associated with higher diabetes risk but lower coronary heart disease risk.
On the whole, the genetic link between the diseases appears to work in one direction so that risk genes for Type 2 diabetes are much more likely to be associated with higher coronary heart disease risk than the other way around, the researchers explained in the paper published in the journal Nature Genetics.
There could also be some pathways where pharmacological lowering of one disease increases the risk of the other.
"Using evidence from human genetics, it should be possible to design drugs for Type-2 diabetes that have either beneficial or neutral effects on coronary heart disease risk," Saleheen said.