First study of Emiratis' genes highlights the links between type 2 diabetes and a deficiency in vitamin D. Soon doctors may be able to prioritise care for those who are most at risk.
ABU DHABI // The first study to examine Emirati genes and the links between type 2 diabetes and vitamin D deficiency uncovered a genetic code that identifies those susceptible to the deficiency.
While studies internationally have found links between the two conditions, it is the first time the Emirati population has been looked at specifically.
Geneticist Dr Habiba Al Safar, from Khalifa University, is collaborating with Dr Fatme Al Anouti, associate professor of chemistry at the department of Natural Science and Public Health at Zayed University, who has been studying vitamin D deficiency since 2008.
About 78 per cent of the population in the UAE suffers from vitamin D deficiency, which can cause chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.
“The first study we did was to examine the frequency of the VDR gene – the gene which receives vitamin D,” Dr Al Safar said. “From the VDR it is absorbed into the metabolism. We have found very strong evidence that the genetic variant in the VDR gene is associated with cholesterol, which can place an individual at high risk for developing cardiovascular disease.”
The study looked at 262 patients with diabetes, gathered from hospitals including Mafraq and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, with an average age of 48. A further 163 students from Khalifa University were screened for metabolism enzymes, which relate to the metabolising of vitamin D.
“Our results indicated that there is a genetic code for people who are susceptible to vitamin D deficiency and another that is protecting them from a deficiency,” said Dr Al Safar.
“Knowing who carries the gene variants could help to identify who is at risk for vitamin D deficiency, and could potentially help reduce the risk of low vitamin D before the problem advances.”
Intervention, in addition to treatment, can also be more personalised, Dr Al Anouti said. “One can’t recommend the same amount of exposure, supplementation or food intake for everyone. Some people are resistant to treatment,” she said.
“It’s important to know where the problem is happening, at the liver or the kidney. Certain people need higher and more aggressive supplementation. Screening for genetic sequencing will help to personalise the treatment better so it will be more effective. This will mean people aren’t so at risk of developing other diseases.”
Type 2 diabetes “is a disease we can prevent”, affecting the young population much more than levels in the West, where the average age of sufferers is 40, as opposed to 26 in the UAE, Dr Al Safar said.
“Our findings may make doctors rethink treatment strategies for improving patients’ vitamin D deficiencies, especially with diabetic and pre-diabetic patients.”
Dr Al Safar has led three campaigns at Khalifa University to raise awareness about vitamin D deficiencies. “We have screened more than 600 students and faculty, educating them in the process on the importance of vitamin D, its sources and roles,” she said.
“We noticed a big improvement in students’ grades and activity. For example, in my class, I had at least seven students whose grades improved from C to B and they have informed me that they felt more energetic and focused during the class and carried positive energy throughout the day.”