Photo via IRRI Images via Flickr CC
A couple years ago, we heard that diabetes could be linked to environmental pollution, specifically persistent organic pollutants (POP), which includes many pesticides. Now, in an analysis of 226 unique environmental factors that impact the onset of Type 2 diabetes, from nutrition to exposure to bacteria, viruses, allergens and toxins, researchers from Stanford University found that a particular pesticide derivative and PCB - an infamous environmental toxin - were both strongly associated with the development of the disease.
This "enviromics" approach taken by the researchers utilized high-speed computers and publicly accessible databases including Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), to analyze the potential factors of diabetes (once again highlighting how helpful open source data can be for scientists).
Finding New Ways to Factor the Environment into Causes of Disease
While the presence of pollutants in the environment seem to be significant factors for the disease, the conclusion of the study was less about pinning down specific causes and more about pinning down methods for finding causes. The researchers feel that too many scientists are focused on genetic research, and we need increased focus on environmental factors as well - and we need an equally thorough research method as that used for genetic factors.
Physorg notes, "The scientists describe their work as a demonstration that computational approaches can reveal as much about environmental contributions to disease as about genetic factors. They posit that the technique could be applied to other complex diseases like obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disorders. The authors acknowledge that many challenges remain, including the fact that, unlike the genome, 'the environment is boundless.'"
"Everyone's been focused on the genetic causes of the disease," says Atul Butte, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics and pediatrics at Stanford. But, he notes, lately "people are dissatisfied with the little amount of risk we can explain with genetics."
The process was an idea from Stanford graduate student, Chirag Patel, who created a specialized computer program to assess the relevant information gathered from health survey databases. According to Scientific American, "After controlling for age, sex, body mass index, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, the group found that those with high levels of PCBs had a 15 percent chance of having type 2 diabetes, a correlation that had been shown in previous studies...The big surprises came from a chemical previously found in pesticides and a common form of vitamin E--levels of which seemed to influence the chances that an individual would have diabetes. Heptachlor epoxide is derived from a pesticide that was banned in the U.S. in the 1980s. It is still found in soil and water supplies and can turn up in food and be passed along in breast milk. High levels of it seemed to increase type 2 diabetes risk to about 7 percent."
Pesticides and Common Diseases
The role pesticides play in common diseases has become increasingly apparent. We just heard about pesticides being linked to the occurrence of ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And we don't even need to get started on the role they play in causing cancer.
This study also underscores how agriculture is a primary factor in the diabetes epidemic in the US. It comes down to both what we put on the fields - pesticides and pollutants that spark the disease - as well as what we choose to plant. Monocultures of corn used to create high-fructose corn syrup and other derivatives used to over-sweeten our foods are problematic. Organic farming of diverse crops is a simple solution to a serious disease.
While the study did not conclude that PCBs or the pesticide derivative are direct causes of diabetes, it did manage to single them out as chemicals to watch in the study of diabetes. And it also managed to put environmental factors in a higher position of priority when figuring out causes of diseases.
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