Podcast: Alan Attie on the genetics of diabetes

We hear a lot about how diet and exercise affect our chances of incurring diabetes. In a new CALS podcast, biochemist talks about his efforts to understand the risk factor we can’t control: genetics.

Sevie Kenyon: Alan, welcome to our microphone. Start out by giving us a description of diabetes in this country.

Alan Attie: Diabetes, which is a disease that involves excessively high blood sugar is quite prevalent in the United States right now. 23.6 million people, or 7.8 percent of the population have diabetes and of those about a quarter are undiagnosed.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you tell us a little bit about what the disease looks like?

Alan Attie: There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. The great majority of people in the United States have type 2 diabetes, which is associated primarily but not exclusively with obesity, so about 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are obese… and it’s a disease with a gradual onset, whereas type 1 diabetes usually strikes people when they’re quite young…including children, and has a very rapid onset. Sometimes it can hit somebody within a course of a week or two and that disease involves an auto-immune attack on the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you tell us how much of diabetes is genetically related and how much is lifestyle related?

Alan Attie: Though we think that about 50 percent of the variation of risk is due to genetic factors, and my work concentrates on the fact that although most people who have type 2 diabetes are obese, most people who are obese actually don’t develop type 2 diabetes…and so I’m trying to discover the genetic factors that determine whether or not an obese person will become diabetic.

Sevie Kenyon: Alan, perhaps you can tell us how far along you are with this research?

Alan Attie: We have identified some genes using mouse models of diabetes that resemble the human disease. We’re working very hard to understand how these genes work and whether or not any of the clues we derive from this research could be used by pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments.

Sevie Kenyon: Alan, perhaps I can get you to look into your crystal ball a little bit and tell us how this might play out?

Alan Attie: I think what we want to do is to develop drugs that improve the function of the cells that are called beta cells that produce insulin…and to also preserve them because in some forms of diabetes these cells die off and even the aging process itself causes beta cells to die off, which is one of the reasons we think older people are more prone to develop type 2 diabetes. 27 percent of the people over the age of 65 in the United States have type 2 diabetes.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Alan Attie Department of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin Extension in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin…and I’m Sevie Kenyon.


From the podcast:

Alan Attie: Genetic clues to diabetes (audio)

featuring Alan D Attie, Professor
Department of Biochemistry
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 262-1372, (608) 262-4705

The genetics of diabetes

3:07 – Total time

0:17 – Diabetes in the United States
0:40 – What diabetes is
1:26 – Genetics of diabetes
1:58 – Current research
2:24 – How the research may work out
2:57 – Lead out