Using mendelian randomization, Roman Pfister and colleagues demonstrate a potentially causal link between low levels of B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), a hormone released by damaged hearts, and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Genetic and epidemiological evidence suggests an inverse association between B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) levels in blood and risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), but the prospective association of BNP with T2D is uncertain, and it is unclear whether the association is confounded.
Methods and Findings
We analysed the association between levels of the N-terminal fragment of pro-BNP (NT-pro-BNP) in blood and risk of incident T2D in a prospective case-cohort study and genotyped the variant rs198389 within the BNP locus in three T2D case-control studies. We combined our results with existing data in a meta-analysis of 11 case-control studies. Using a Mendelian randomization approach, we compared the observed association between rs198389 and T2D to that expected from the NT-pro-BNP level to T2D association and the NT-pro-BNP difference per C allele of rs198389. In participants of our case-cohort study who were free of T2D and cardiovascular disease at baseline, we observed a 21% (95% CI 3%–36%) decreased risk of incident T2D per one standard deviation (SD) higher log-transformed NT-pro-BNP levels in analysis adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, systolic blood pressure, smoking, family history of T2D, history of hypertension, and levels of triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The association between rs198389 and T2D observed in case-control studies (odds ratio = 0.94 per C allele, 95% CI 0.91–0.97) was similar to that expected (0.96, 0.93–0.98) based on the pooled estimate for the log-NT-pro-BNP level to T2D association derived from a meta-analysis of our study and published data (hazard ratio = 0.82 per SD, 0.74–0.90) and the difference in NT-pro-BNP levels (0.22 SD, 0.15–0.29) per C allele of rs198389. No significant associations were observed between the rs198389 genotype and potential confounders.
Our results provide evidence for a potential causal role of the BNP system in the aetiology of T2D. Further studies are needed to investigate the mechanisms underlying this association and possibilities for preventive interventions.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide, nearly 250 million people have diabetes, and this number is increasing rapidly. Diabetes is characterized by dangerous amounts of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Blood sugar levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone that the pancreas releases after meals (digestion of food produces glucose). In people with type 2 diabetes (the most common form of diabetes), blood sugar control fails because the fat and muscle cells that usually respond to insulin by removing sugar from the blood become insulin resistant. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled with diet and exercise, and with drugs that help the pancreas make more insulin or that make cells more sensitive to insulin. The long-term complications of diabetes, which include kidney failure and an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and stroke, reduce the life expectancy of people with diabetes by about 10 years compared to people without diabetes.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because the causes of type 2 diabetes are poorly understood, it is hard to devise ways to prevent the condition. Recently, B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP, a hormone released by damaged hearts) has been implicated in type 2 diabetes development in cross-sectional studies (investigations in which data are collected at a single time point from a population to look for associations between an illness and potential risk factors). Although these studies suggest that high levels of BNP may protect against type 2 diabetes, they cannot prove a causal link between BNP levels and diabetes because the study participants with low BNP levels may share some another unknown factor (a confounding factor) that is the real cause of both diabetes and altered BNP levels. Here, the researchers use an approach called “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether reduced BNP levels contribute to causing type 2 diabetes. It is known that a common genetic variant (rs198389) within the genome region that encodes BNP is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Because gene variants are inherited randomly, they are not subject to confounding. So, by investigating the association between BNP gene variants that alter NT-pro-BNP (a molecule created when BNP is being produced) levels and the development of type 2 diabetes, the researchers can discover whether BNP is causally involved in this chronic condition.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed the association between blood levels of NT-pro-BNP at baseline in 440 participants of the EPIC-Norfolk study (a prospective population-based study of lifestyle factors and the risk of chronic diseases) who subsequently developed diabetes and in 740 participants who did not develop diabetes. In this prospective case-cohort study, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was associated with lower NT-pro-BNP levels. They also genotyped (sequenced) rs198389 in the participants of three case-control studies of type 2 diabetes (studies in which potential risk factors for type 2 diabetes were examined in people with type 2 diabetes and matched controls living in the East of England), and combined these results with those of eight similar published case-control studies. Finally, the researchers showed that the association between rs198389 and type 2 diabetes measured in the case-control studies was similar to the expected association calculated from the association between NT-pro-BNP level and type 2 diabetes obtained from the prospective case-cohort study and the association between rs198389 and BNP levels obtained from the EPIC-Norfolk study and other published studies.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results of this Mendelian randomization study provide evidence for a causal, protective role of the BNP hormone system in the development of type 2 diabetes. That is, these findings suggest that low levels of BNP are partly responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes. Because the participants in all the individual studies included in this analysis were of European descent, these findings may not be generalizable to other ethnicities. Moreover, they provide no explanation of how alterations in the BNP hormone system might affect the development of type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, the demonstration of a causal link between the BNP hormone system and type 2 diabetes suggests that BNP may be a potential target for interventions designed to prevent type 2 diabetes, particularly since the feasibility of altering BNP levels with drugs has already been proven in patients with cardiovascular disease.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001112.
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about all aspects of diabetes
The US National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse provides detailed information about diabetes for patients, health-care professionals, and the general public (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website also provides information for patients and carers about type 2 diabetes and includes people's stories about diabetes
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources and advice about diabetes (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has pages on BNP and on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The charity Healthtalkonline has interviews with people about their experiences of diabetes; the charity Diabetes UK has a further selection of stories from people with diabetes