New test could help detect type 2 diabetes risk

Analysis of DNA changes in the blood can better predict a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes within a decade.

The scientists studied the influence of these changes - known as DNA methylation - along with other risk factors in nearly 15,000 people to predict the likelihood of disease years before symptoms appeared. The findings could lead to preventive measures being taken earlier to reduce the economic and health burden caused by type 2 diabetes.  

Improved accuracy

Methylation is a chemical process in the body in which a small molecule called a methyl group is added to DNA.

Current tools for predicting risk for type 2 diabetes use information such as age, gender, BMI and family history of the disease.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that incorporating DNA methylation data alongside these risk factors allows for more accurate prediction.

Using their findings, the researchers estimated predictive performance based on a hypothetical screening scenario involving 10,000 people in which one in three develops type 2 diabetes over a 10-year period.

The model, which used DNA methylation, correctly classified 449 individuals in addition to traditional risk factors.

Adding or removing these methyl groups can affect the action of some molecules in the body. These methylation patterns can help track ageing processes and disease development.


Large study

The data came from 14,613 volunteers who participated in Generation Scotland - a large-scale study designed to help scientists explore the causes of disease, understand the country's health care priorities and provide information about future medical treatments and health policies.

The team also repeated the analyses on 1,451 people from a study in Germany to ensure the results could be replicated in people from other backgrounds.

Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition in which the insulin produced by the pancreas does not work properly or the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. This can lead to high blood glucose levels and thus a number of health problems such as heart disease and stroke, nerve damage, and foot problems.

In the UK, more than 4.9 million people live with diabetes, 90 percent of them with type 2.

The study was published in the journal Nature Aging. The researchers from the University of Edinburgh were supported by experts from the University of Helsinki, the German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH) and the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD).

It is promising that our findings were observed in the Scottish and German studies with both showing an improvement in prediction above and beyond commonly used risk factors. Delaying onset is important as diabetes is a risk factor for other common diseases, including dementias.


Similar approaches could be taken for other common diseases to generate broad health predictors from a single blood or saliva sample. We are incredibly grateful for our study volunteers who make this research possible – the more people that join our study, the more precisely we can identify signals that will help delay or reduce the onset of diseases as we age.


Generation Scotland is currently recruiting volunteers and has recently opened to young people aged between 12 and 15 for the first time. Anyone who lives in Scotland can sign up online at

Related links

Read the paper in the journal Nature Aging

Generation Scotland website

Riccardo Marioni Research Group

Centre for Genomic & Experimental Medicine

Institute of Genetics and Cancer