Raised C-reactive protein (CRP) is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. According to the Mendelian randomization method, the association is likely to be causal if genetic variants that affect CRP level are associated with markers of diabetes development and diabetes. Our objective was to examine the nature of the association between CRP phenotype and diabetes development using CRP haplotypes as instrumental variables.
Methods and Findings
We genotyped three tagging SNPs (CRP + 2302G > A; CRP + 1444T > C; CRP + 4899T > G) in the CRP gene and measured serum CRP in 5,274 men and women at mean ages 49 and 61 y (Whitehall II Study). Homeostasis model assessment-insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) were measured at age 61 y. Diabetes was ascertained by glucose tolerance test and self-report. Common major haplotypes were strongly associated with serum CRP levels, but unrelated to obesity, blood pressure, and socioeconomic position, which may confound the association between CRP and diabetes risk. Serum CRP was associated with these potential confounding factors. After adjustment for age and sex, baseline serum CRP was associated with incident diabetes (hazard ratio = 1.39 [95% confidence interval 1.29–1.51], HOMA-IR, and HbA1c, but the associations were considerably attenuated on adjustment for potential confounding factors. In contrast, CRP haplotypes were not associated with HOMA-IR or HbA1c (p = 0.52–0.92). The associations of CRP with HOMA-IR and HbA1c were all null when examined using instrumental variables analysis, with genetic variants as the instrument for serum CRP. Instrumental variables estimates differed from the directly observed associations (p = 0.007–0.11). Pooled analysis of CRP haplotypes and diabetes in Whitehall II and Northwick Park Heart Study II produced null findings (p = 0.25–0.88). Analyses based on the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium (1,923 diabetes cases, 2,932 controls) using three SNPs in tight linkage disequilibrium with our tagging SNPs also demonstrated null associations.
Observed associations between serum CRP and insulin resistance, glycemia, and diabetes are likely to be noncausal. Inflammation may play a causal role via upstream effectors rather than the downstream marker CRP.
Using a Mendelian randomization approach, Eric Brunner and colleagues show that the associations between serum C-reactive protein and insulin resistance, glycemia, and diabetes are likely to be noncausal.
Diabetes—a common, long-term (chronic) disease that causes heart, kidney, nerve, and eye problems and shortens life expectancy—is characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. In people without diabetes, blood sugar levels are controlled by the hormone insulin. Insulin is released by the pancreas after eating and “instructs” insulin-responsive muscle and fat cells to take up the glucose from the bloodstream that is produced by the digestion of food. In the early stages of type 2 diabetes (the commonest type of diabetes), the muscle and fat cells become nonresponsive to insulin (a condition called insulin resistance), and blood sugar levels increase. The pancreas responds by making more insulin—people with insulin resistance have high blood levels of both insulin and glucose. Eventually, however, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas start to malfunction, insulin secretion decreases, and frank diabetes develops.
Why Was This Study Done?
Globally, about 200 million people have diabetes, but experts believe this number will double by 2030. Ways to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes are, therefore, urgently needed. One major risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes is being overweight. According to one theory, increased body fat causes mild, chronic tissue inflammation, which leads to insulin resistance. Consistent with this idea, people with higher than normal amounts of the inflammatory protein C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood have a high risk of developing diabetes. If inflammation does cause diabetes, then drugs that inhibit CRP might prevent diabetes. However, simply measuring CRP and determining whether the people with high levels develop diabetes cannot prove that CRP causes diabetes. Those people with high blood levels of CRP might have other unknown factors in common (confounding factors) that are the real causes of diabetes. In this study, the researchers use “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether increased blood CRP causes diabetes. Some variants of CRP (the gene that encodes CRP) increase the amount of CRP in the blood. Because these variants are inherited randomly, there is no likelihood of confounding factors, and an association between these variants and the development of insulin resistance and diabetes indicates, therefore, that increased CRP levels cause diabetes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured blood CRP levels in more than 5,000 people enrolled in the Whitehall II study, which is investigating factors that affect disease development. They also used the “homeostasis model assessment-insulin resistance” (HOMA-IR) method to estimate insulin sensitivity from blood glucose and insulin measurements, and measured levels of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c, hemoglobin with sugar attached—a measure of long-term blood sugar control) in these people. Finally, they looked at three “single polynucleotide polymorphisms” (SNPs, single nucleotide changes in a gene's DNA sequence; combinations of SNPs that are inherited as a block are called haplotypes) in CRP in each study participant. Common haplotypes of CRP were related to blood serum CRP levels and, as previously reported, increased blood CRP levels were associated with diabetes and with HOMA-IR and HbA1c values indicative of insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control, respectively. By contrast, CRP haplotypes were not related to HOMA-IR or HbA1c values. Similarly, pooled analysis of CRP haplotypes and diabetes in Whitehall II and another large study on health determinants (the Northwick Park Heart Study II) showed no association between CRP variants and diabetes risk. Finally, data from the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium also showed no association between CRP haplotypes and diabetes risk.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Together, these findings suggest that increased blood CRP levels are not responsible for the development of insulin resistance or diabetes, at least in European populations. It may be that there is a causal relationship between CRP levels and diabetes risk in other ethnic populations—further Mendelian randomization studies are needed to discover whether this is the case. For now, though, these findings suggest that drugs targeted against CRP are unlikely to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. However, they do not discount the possibility that proteins involved earlier in the inflammatory process might cause diabetes and might thus represent good drug targets for diabetes prevention.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050155.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Bernard Keavney
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about diabetes and about C-reactive protein (in English and Spanish)
US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides patient information on all aspects of diabetes, including information on insulin resistance (in English and Spanish)
The International Diabetes Federation provides information about diabetes, including information on the global diabetes epidemic
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information for the public and professionals on all aspects of diabetes (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)