Our research has revealed that having higher levels of fat in the liver, and having a smaller pancreas, directly increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The findings provide a significant step forward in understanding the biological causes driving the development of the condition.
This research could unlock new treatment approaches and allow more tailored ways to help people reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as prevent cases altogether.
Is liver fat causing type 2 diabetes?
Researchers, funded by us and led by our research fellow Dr Hanieh Yaghootkar, at Brunel University, explored whether liver and pancreas size and fat content could play a direct role in causing type 2 diabetes. They used Mendelian randomisation – a statistical method that uses genetic and health information to understand cause and effect.
The team looked at data from 32,859 people who had had MRI scans as part of the UK Biobank study. Liver and pancreas fat and size were analysed from these scans, alongside information about genes that affect them. This was to understand their role in the risk of developing diabetes.
The researchers found that people with a genetic make-up that makes them prone to storing fat in their liver are more likely to have type 2 diabetes. This suggests that higher liver fat levels directly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, with their analysis showing that for every 5% increase in liver fat, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases by 27%. Similarly, having a smaller pancreas was found to have a direct role in causing type 2 diabetes.
Pancreas fat levels and liver size were associated with type 2 diabetes but were not found to play a direct role in raising type 2 diabetes risk. The researchers also looked at data from 9,000 people with type 1 diabetes, but liver and pancreas size or fat levels were not found to be directly linked to the autoimmune condition.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when fat builds up in the liver. NAFLD is most commonly seen in people living with obesity or overweight, and having higher levels of liver fat has previously been associated with the development of type 2 diabetes. However, this is the strongest evidence to date to suggest liver fat and pancreas size have a hand in causing the condition.
Type 2 diabetes is a complex condition with many risk factors, some that can’t be changed such as age, ethnicity and family history, and some that can, such as body weight. Previous research has shown that losing weight can reduce liver fat levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Piecing together how different factors impact the risk of developing type 2 diabetes is important in understanding the most effective ways to help people reduce their risk.
In future, those with a certain genetic makeup that may make them prone to higher liver fat levels or a smaller pancreas could be offered tailored support to help them take steps to reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes early on.
Our RD Lawrence Fellow, Dr Hanieh Yaghootkar at Brunel University, said:
Dr Lucy Chambers, our Head of Research Communications, said:
You can find out your risk of type 2 diabetes and steps you can take to reduce it, by visiting our free online Know Your Risk tool.