Study: Pancreatic fat levels may help predict diabetes

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MR spectroscopy (MRS) has been successfuly utilized by researchers to measure pancreatic fat, which could help identify patients at high risk of diabetes and monitor interventions designed to prevent the disease, according to a study available online at Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Scientists at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas used MRS to measure the amount of pancreatic fat in 79 adult volunteers. The research team obtained duplicate measurements one to two weeks apart from 33 study participants to make sure the results could be replicated over time.

The volunteers were divided into four groups according to their body mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance. All participants underwent numerous physical measurements including height, weight and blood pressure in addition to extensive clinical evaluations.

Using MRS, the researchers found that the overweight and obese volunteers had significantly more pancreatic fat than did those in the lean group. The volunteers who had similar BMIs but had already developed either pre-diabetes or diabetes had even more pancreatic fat.

"These are very early results, but if they hold true, pancreatic MRS would be a fast and noninvasive test to screen people at risk for diabetes either because they're obese or they have a family history of type 2 diabetes, or metabolic syndrome," said Ildiko Lingvay, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern and lead author of the study. "It could potentially tell physicians which patients are most likely to develop diabetes in the near future and thus are in need of more aggressive interventions."

MRS has not been approved for routine clinical use, but Lingvay said this research shows that it could be a very valuable tool for studying the pancreas without a biopsy.

"This technology represents a good opportunity for clinicians to pursue research that hasn't been possible because of the lack of advanced tools," she said.

The next step, Lingvay said, is to determine whether reducing the amount of fat in the pancreas lowers diabetes risk.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the study included Victoria Esser, MD, associate professor of internal medicine; Jaime Legendre, recipient of a Clinical Research Fellowship from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; Angela Price, MD, postdoctoral clinician trainee in internal medicine; Kristen Wertz, research associate in internal medicine; Beverley Adams Huet, assistant professor of clinical sciences; Song Zhang, MD, assistant professor of clinical sciences; Roger Unger, MD, professor of internal medicine; and Lidia Szczepaniak, MD, former assistant professor of internal medicine and radiology.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.