Measuring the fatty acids in the blood will help determine if a person is pre-diabetic, a new study finds.

Pre-diabetes refers to a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, although not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. While the condition has no signs or symptoms, researchers from University of Hawaii Cancer Center say their findings may allow physicians to warn patients years before the onset of the chronic disease.

“Currently there are no clinical tests that tell you the likelihood of developing diabetes, only exams that tell you, for example, if someone that is pre-diabetic has relatively high blood sugar or insulin levels,” says Dr Wei Jia, the director of the university’s Cancer Center’s Metabolomics Shared Resources Program.

He says knowing about one’s risk of having diabetes in a few years is an important discovery. This allows people to get tested for the disease during physical exams in the future. Pre-diabetics also have a chance to change their lifestyle patterns and potentially avoiding the diagnosis of the disease.

In the study published in the journal EBioMedicine, the team claims that the unsaturated fatty acid markers they identified can mark if someone is pre-diabetic long before conventional ways of measuring the disease. The levels of these fatty acids can change up to 10 years before the individuals are diagnosed with diabetes.

For the study, Jia and his team conducted a metabolomics study on four independent cohorts that involved a total of 452 participants, in collaboration with scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University affiliated Shanghai 6th People’s Hospital.

They performed a cross-sectional study with metabolically healthy and unhealthy obese subjects, a longitudinal study to observe the occurrence of developing pre-diabetes over as long as ten years, and two studies to evaluate the therapeutic effects on subjects who underwent metabolic surgery or received very low carbohydrate diet for eight weeks.

According to the researchers, the markers tested through a blood sample may help predict the risk of developing pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions including elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance and high glucose level.

“It is conventionally assumed that if people are obese they are in risk of being pre-diabetic. However, sometimes people who are obese can still be healthy. If people know they are specifically pre-diabetic, they can have a more targeted way of treating it," Jia explains.

Being overweight, especially those who have excess weight around the waistline, is considered a risk factor for pre-diabetes, according to Diabetes Australia. Other risk factors include being physically inactive, as well as having low good cholesterol, high blood pressure and family history of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In Australia, two million people are reported to have pre-diabetes and are at high-risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

For their next steps, the researchers aim to continue developing the blood test technology, and eventually have it available for physicians.

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