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Researchers use genetics-inspired approach to study environmental risk factors

by Heather Mayer , DOTmed News Reporter

In order to determine whether certain environmental factors were associated with Type 2 diabetes, the researchers looked at what elevated levels of certain factors were also found in people with diabetes, says Butte. He points out that this was not a causal study; these findings don't mean a certain factor causes diabetes.

But when it comes to explaining why a certain factor is associated with Type 2 diabetes, Butte says right now, it's purely speculation. And the researchers can't begin to explain why vitamin E may be associated with the disease.
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"For us, vitamin E is the most puzzling. It's an antioxidant," he says. "[Heptachlor] was banned in the 80s because of its association with cancer. It's known to play a role in affecting cellular systems. Perhaps it's playing the same kind of role here."

What Butte and his researchers are most excited about is what these findings mean for the future of environmental risk factor testing. In the past, it has been difficult to study individual risk factors, but using EWAS will allow scientists to study factors across the board.

"We know we can apply the same method to other disorders - cholesterol, lipid abnormality," he says. "The next step is to think about the biology...The next step is a longitudinal study. It would be to [look at] the elevation in factors to see how long it would take for a person to get diabetes...and figure out the causal link."

"I hope this paper brings the study of environmental risk factors up to where genetics and genomics have been in the past 10 to 15 years," Butte says.

McCabe thinks the success of this research is extremely promising when it comes to factors that cause disease, even though he emphasizes that this study was merely an association study.

He is part of a national children's study that looks at environmental and genetic factors that influence the health of children.

"This is a very important study in paving the way for future studies looking at complex causation, not just on nutrition or environmental exposure, not just genetics, but the ability to put them all together," he says.

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